June 25, 2024

U.S. Insurer With a Japanese Touch

CHOFU, JAPAN — Although Aflac is an American insurance company, the bulk of its revenue comes from Japan. And in responding to the biggest natural disaster ever to hit the country, Aflac has tried to adopt a characteristic Japanese approach.

That includes the decorum that managers say hundreds of telephone agents in this Tokyo suburb used when talking to customers March 11, even from under their desks as the call center was shaking violently. With headsets still in place, they explained as cooly as possible that an earthquake was under way — something obvious to people in eastern Japan, but unknowable to those in western Japan.

“The operators were able to act professionally, given the situation,” said Tomoyo Mikazuki, a call center manager.

Aflac Japan has also suspended television advertising featuring its mascot duck, and it quickly took out newspaper ads offering messages of condolences. Customers affected by the natural disasters were automatically given a six-month grace period to pay the premiums on the supplemental health and life insurance policies in which the company specializes. Aflac Japan and many of its employees, meanwhile, have donated millions of dollars to relief efforts.

As more Japanese companies have begun letting the news media inside their doors, a month after the earthquake and tsunami, the steps Aflac is taking are comparable to what many other Japanese companies have done: falling in line with the national calls for self-restraint, humility and sacrifice, while gradually putting interrupted or suspended operations back in place.

And while Aflac is not technically Japanese — corporate headquarters are in Columbus, Georgia — its Aflac Japan unit is by far the company’s biggest. About 70 percent of Aflac’s $20.7 billion in revenue last year came from Japan. And it leads its segment of the Japanese insurance market, with nearly 21 million policies, sold by more than 19,000 agencies who are supported by about 4,000 Aflac employees working from 82 Aflac-owned offices around the country.

“A lot of customers don’t think of us as American,” said Charles D. Lake, chairman of Aflac Japan. “We’re here.”

Because Aflac is not a property insurer like Chartis, Tokio Marine or others still trying to gauge the scale of claims from the quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that the Japanese government will ultimately help cover, Aflac’s business has been only minimally affected.

Fewer than 5 percent of Aflac’s policies are in the Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures most affected by the disaster, and the company has not had to revise its earnings projections to account for expected claims. (One agent died and another is still missing, of more than 300 Aflac agents in the coastal areas of the affected prefectures.)

Mainly, Aflac is similar to many types of big Japanese companies with a national retail reach, which are gradually coming back from the various disruptions, including rolling power blackouts, that have affected segments of their daily operations.

But things were far worse on the afternoon of March 11, when executives at the Aflac Japan headquarters were surprised by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake. The skyscraper in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo that houses the company’s corporate office swung like a reed in the wind. Elevators were stopped, which meant long walks to the street from the offices.

Because the trains had stopped running, workers at headquarters had to make their way home that Friday night by their own devices — some paid hundreds of dollars to buy new bicycles. The company’s contingency plan included a phone tree that assigned workers to call co-workers, but with cellphone service cut, the plan was scrapped.

Mr. Lake was on a business trip in Niigata, 320 kilometers, or 200 miles, to the west, and unable to return to Tokyo for two days. So Tohru Tonoike, the president, and Hiroshi Yamauchi, senior vice president of corporate planning, spent the night in the Tokyo office.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=4537821525695b1bc76eab035aca86fd

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