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Manulife deploys new digital tools to combat falling Q1 income amid COVID-19

Last Updated May 7, 2020 at 9:44 am EDT

Signage is seen on Manulife Financial Corp.'s office tower in Toronto, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

TORONTO — Manulife Financial Corp.’s top executive says COVID-19 has caused first quarter revenues to tumble, even as the insurer rolled out a suite of digital tools to accommodate customers and employees working from home.

While the Toronto-based company was scrambling to bring a new chatbot to North America, launch e-claims in Asia and revamp global sales processes to cut down on contact, its net income attributable to shareholders fell to $1.3 billion from $900 million in the same period the year before.

Manulife earned 64 cents per diluted share for the three months ended Mar. 31, a 40 per cent decrease from the $1.08 per share it reported a year earlier.

That was five cents higher than analysts’ expectations of 59 cents, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv, and pushed Manulife’s stock up by 25 cents or 1.5 per cent at $16.69 at the close of markets Wednesday.

On a Thursday morning earnings call, Roy Gori, Manulife’s chief executive, was confident that the tools would help the company bounce back and combat market headwinds.

“When the crisis hit and isolation measures were put in place around the world, we accelerated our plan to roll out technology more broadly in the region,” said Gori, about the company’s non-face-to-face contact sales processes that were launched across Asia after being piloted in China. 

“This enabled our distribution partners and agents to engage with our customers according to their preferences. It also positions us well to capitalize on any changes in customers’ sentiment post-COVID-19 and supports productivity and retention of our agency force.”

Such tools were launched as Manulife transitioned 99 per cent of its North American employees and 95 per cent of its global staff to work remotely.

With work-from-home restrictions loosening in Asia, about 80 per cent of its staff in China have returned to its facilities and Manulife’s Hong Kong office is now about 50 per cent occupied.

The evening before Manulife’s earnings call, Gori told The Canadian Press that he was optimistic about the pandemic’s impact on his company because COVID-19 was making people more appreciative of insurance and teaching them the value of saving for retirement and having diversified wealth management.

“What we have seen through other pandemics like SARS, for example, is that several months after the pandemic, people start thinking more about whether they have sufficient insurance coverage,” he said.

“At this point in time, we are certainly getting calls from customers, and some of that is around whether they should get more coverage or more protection, but we typically see there’s a little bit of a lag with that.”

He will continue to monitor trends like that from home, where he has been working amid the pandemic.

That shift has been “quite an adjustment,” he admitted.

“I’m very much a people person so I like to meet with people face to face and discuss things and topics and brainstorm. So that’s been more difficult or challenging than anything else,” he said.

“But to be frank, when you think about the challenges that people around the world are dealing with, that challenge feels so insignificant, so it’s really hard to complain about some of the awkwardness.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2020

Companies in this story: (TSX:MFC)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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