For young professionals in their tweens entering the workforce today, joining a buzzing startup straight out of B-school, or after a small corporate stint, is considered cool and rewarding. But 10 years ago, when Flipkart was just a bookseller and Amazon a rainforest in South America for most Indians, a job offer from a blue-chip multinational was the ultimate dream come true for many people.
Yet, circa 2009, a 27-year-old consultant with KPMG decided to pass an offer from Accenture and instead join a life insurer that hadn’t even issued its first policy at the time. IndiaFirst Life Insurance was a three-way joint venture between Bank of Baroda, Andhra Bank,and the U.K.-based Legal and General Group (Legal and General’s stake in IndiaFirst was acquired by Warburg Pincus in February 2019).
With two public sector banks as its majority shareholders, IndiaFirst might not have been an employer of choice for many of her generation and pedigree, but Sonia Notani chose to join it as a project manager in 2009. “Everyone around me, including my family, was shocked that I didn’t pursue the opportunity with Accenture,” says Notani, who has previously worked with organisations including the Aditya Birla Group, Citibank, Reliance Life Insurance, and KPMG. “The roleat IndiaFirst just felt right to me. I thought this was an excellent opportunity to do something of my own, setup processes, bring a lot of business intelligence into the system and be appreciated for it.”
In hindsight, Notani’s risk has paid off. Now 37, she joined IndiaFirst as its eighth employee and went onto steadily rise through the ranks to become one of its senior-most executives. From 2016 until April 2019,she was the chief strategy officer at the Mumbai-based life insurer, leading functions such as product development (a core function for a company whose business is based on devising innovative insurance products for retail customers), marketing,change management, analytics, and strategic alliances. Notani—who did her MBA from SVKM’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies and is an economics graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai—was re-designated chief marketing officer in May 2019. While she will continue to look after product development and alliances in her new role as well, she will also focus on enhancing customer experience going forward.
What helped was that Notani had a fair idea about Bank of Baroda and Legal and General’s plans for India beforehand. While at KPMG, she was part of a team mandated by these two entities to chalk out a go-to-market plan for a proposed foray into insurance. Over the years, Notani has worked across functions including training, branch operations, learning and development, and setting up sales channels IndiaFirst.
IndiaFirst was the 23rd private sector insurers to enter the market in 2009. At present, it ranks 12th in terms of gross premium collection and had assets under management to the tune of ₹15,153 crore as of March 31, 2019. In FY19, IndiaFirst collected a gross premium of ₹3,213 crore, up 39% year-on-year. The total new business APE (annual premium equivalent)earned by the insurer in FY19 was ₹961 crore, a five-year compound annual growth rate of 44%compared with a 14% CAGR for the industry in the same period. IndiaFirst has been profitable since 2014-15 and posted 20% year-on-year growth in net profit in FY19 to ₹62 crore. On the back of its tailored products, the average ticket size per customer has increased from ₹17,100 in FY15 to ₹45,000 in FY19.
There is a perception that working with public sector professionals isn’t easy given the rigidity of their views and unwillingness to accept change. Did this throw a spanner in the works for Notani? “Not at all,” she says. “The people that we worked with were quite open-minded and were open to new ideas and suggestions. We all realised that this venture had great potential due to the customer base of the two banks and the global expertise of the inter-national partner.” It did take some convincing at times, Notani admits, but there wasn’t any kind of bureaucracy delaying or hampering decision-making, she says.
R.M. Vishakha, IndiaFirst’s managing director and chief executive officer, credits Notani with developing the entire product range for the life insurer and helping grow the business through strategic alliances and analytics-based insights. “Our product portfolio today is much more comprehensive and holistic than when I joined in 2015,” says Vishakha. “Sonia’s execution skills in taking a strategy all the way till implementation are outstanding. The drive,focus, energy, and ability to not let the ball drop are admirable.”
For a fledgeling insurance company looking to make a mark in a cluttered industry, the breadth and innovativeness of its products is very important. Notani has extensively worked on building a suite of diverse products that have helped IndiaFirst rise through the ranks over the years. “In the initial phase, we wanted two things—to be relevant to customers who were looking for insurance products and to be able to cater to an audience which didn’t have much faith in insurance,” explains Notani. “So we agreed on a broad customer profile that we wanted to target and strategised on products keeping this target audience in mind.”
Around 70% of IndiaFirst’s customer belong to non-metros and non-urban areas, Notani says. They are relatively risk-averse and the insurer has made simple, cost-efficient products for them. IndiaFirst offers a diversified suite of 35 need-based products catering to varied customer segments, leveraging multiple distribution capabilities and augmenting various investment options. These products fall under various categories, including term insurance, assured savings, wealth, pension, health and group funds for employee liabilities.
Some of the products that IndiaFirst has devised under Notani’s supervision that have done well for the company include a cashback life insurance plan, a guaranteed retirement plan, a wealth maximiser plan, and a plan targeted at children. She has also pioneered the development of socially-focussed, yet commercially viable, life insurance products such as the IndiaFirst Life Insurance Khata, which is a micro-insurance scheme that considers the possibility of seasonal income and provides customers the flexibility to pay a premium intranches depending on their cash flows. The insurer has tied up with the government’s common service centres (CSCs) in semi-urban and rural areas to promote this product.
Ten years is a long time to be in one job for professionals of her generation, especially in a competitive space like financial services. Sowasn’t she tempted to move on to other things? Notani says she always felt she was making a difference to the organisation as well as her own life in the time that she has been withIndiaFirst. “I was part of some key decisions as the organisation was being built and the management has trusted me and given me a long rope to try new things. So that validates your existence in the company,” Notani says.
Royston Braganza, chief executive officer of Grameen Capital India, says Notani is always excited to try and innovate, especially when it comes to driving an inclusion agenda. “I believe she demonstrates a rare combination of head and heart, which I am sure will take her and her organisation to greater heights,”says Braganza, who leads a financial advisory firm that facilitates capital markets access for impact-focussed enterprises. He has known Notani for the past couple of years, ever since their organisations started working together to devise financial solutions for customers at the bottom of the pyramid.
Under Notani’s leadership, IndiaFirst—which relies on the bancassurance model via Bank of Baroda and Andhra Bank’s branch network for much of its business—is also embracing digital channels of marketing and sales in a big way.
Her successful professional career was also made possible by a strong ecosystem that has shared the burden of managing work as well as familial duties. Notani has a seven-year-old son who is “busier than his parents”, she jokes. It helped that as her son was growing up, she could leave him under the supervision of her mother who stays close by while her husband and she were at work. Her husband,Vidur Garg, has also been a pillar of support,Notani says. Garg is an HR professional who ventured out on his own two years ago with YourHRHead, which offers professional human resources support to organisations across verticals. Notani lets on that the responsibility of seeing her son through his academic curriculum has been taken on by her husband, who keeps flexible work hours as his own boss.
Assessing Notani’s capabilities as an HRprofessional, Garg says she has the ability to“get things done” by switching between aggression and persuasion as and when required.Notani and Garg complement each other when it comes to allowing the other to take risks.When Notani wanted to join an unknown life insurer, Garg encouraged her as he was in astable job. Likewise, when Garg wanted to startup on his own, Notani backed him as she was well-settled by then.
So, what next for Notani? “I have handled extremely diversified responsibilities over the last three-four years and the new role will bring additional responsibilities. Where do I see myself going from here? Maybe the corner office someday!” Why not?
(This story was originally published in the June-September special issue of the magazine.)