Rowena Chan

To stay competitive in a rapidly evolving financial services industry, many firms are embarking on what they call a “digital transformation” — embracing new technology to help the company meet the needs of its advisors and clients. Rowena Chan, in her new role as president of Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc. (SLFD) in Toronto, is ushering in new technology to complement the firm’s financial advisory services.

Chan joined SLFD in March after a 30-year stint at Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD), most recently as senior vice president of TD Wealth Financial Planning. She plans to transfer her knowledge and experience in wealth management to her new role while leveraging Sun Life’s strength as a life insurance company to provide “truly holistic” services. This is Chan’s first foray into the insurance industry.

Chan’s new role came as part of Sun Life’s strategy, announced in February, to streamline its three main individual insurance and wealth-management businesses: SLFD; Sun Life’s insurance solutions division; and Sun Life’s investment solutions division (which incorporates Sun Life Global Investments [Canada] Inc.) The aim is to provide better client service. While Chan took on the development and execution of distribution strategies for insurance and wealth management, Vineet Kochhar was named senior vice president, insurance solutions, Sun Life. More recently, Jordy Chilcott replaced Rick Headrick as president of Sun Life Global Investments and senior vice president, investment solutions, for Sun Life.

Sun Life Canada also announced a new client experience office that will integrate Sun Life’s three lines of business to anticipate and respond to client needs.

“Customers can experience a consistent and seamless touchpoint,” Chan says, “and [that] will enable us to further accelerate our digital transformation strategy by leveraging data technology and analytics.”

There is plenty of opportunity for growth in the financial services market in Canada, Chan says, largely because a significant number of Canadians don’t have insurance coverage for serious life events and aren’t confident that they’re saving enough for retirement. Canadians also are faced with increasing health-care costs and may not have the financial resources to receive the care they need.

One way the industry can engage clients more effectively in the areas of insurance, wealth management and health is by employing technology that benefits not only clients, but advisors and firms as well. Chan’s goal in her new role is to create a platform for all parties by providing the optimal combination of technology and human talent.

Over the past year, Sun Life has been accelerating progress on its digital initiatives, recently introducing video conferencing and e-signatures to save clients’ time.

Sun Life also offers an online platform called Lumino Health, which provides health- related education content and a search engine for health-care providers that is available to all Canadians. The platform is like TripAdvisor for health, Chan says, as Lumino Health enables members to compare prices and provide ratings.

On the advisor end, Sun Life has included Siri, Apple Inc.’s virtual assistant, on the insurer’s platform as a note-taking tool. When advisors talk to Siri, their notes are automatically recorded and integrated into Sun Life’s contact-management system, thus creating greater efficiency for advisors and their teams.

Most notably, the firm plans to begin launching robo-advice sometime next year.

“Customers should be able to choose how they interact with us and how they want to conduct business with us as well,” Chan says. “We want to provide a seamless continuum of distribution points so customers can work with us by robo- or assisted advice and a face-to-face advisor among [our] different distribution channels seamlessly.”

The timing of Sun Life’s entry into the robo-advisor market “is the right strategic pacing, given our strengths and given the direction we want to go in,” Chan says.

Sun Life’s other new digital offerings will include an upgraded contact-management system (the firm is working with vendors to introduce curated content), texting capabilities and new websites for advisors.

“As we all know, texting is a commonly used communication [method] among the general public,” Chan says. “We want to find a way that’s efficient and compliant for our advisors to connect and communicate with clients. We want to be ahead of [the trend in the financial services industry].”

Chan says the firm’s websites will be more interactive, enabling clients to request appointments online, ask questions and receive timely responses.

Part of what attracted Chan to her new role was Sun Life’s “holistic” approach to addressing clients’ needs. She also was drawn by the many channels of communication it offers clients and advisors. Clients will eventually be able to choose how they communicate with their advisors: by phone, digital chat or text messaging.

Chan also found the firm’s culture — which embodies transparency and collaboration — to be attractive. She says there’s a strong family culture at Sun Life that’s a boon to the business. Not only are advisors working together “like family,” but there are many spousal and parent/child teams within the firm. “This helps our advisors better serve families of clients,” Chan says.

Another important characteristic of Sun Life’s culture is the firm’s international perspective, which is aided by the firm’s presence in Asia and the U.S. Sun Life is always able to take a “global view,” she says, which informs how the firm operates.

“Diversity is sometimes about gender and origin,” Chan says. “But to me, diversity is also about thoughts, experiences and perspectives. So, when people come from different backgrounds, they can bring different views.

“It’s so important,” she adds, “that we have people, whether it’s in the head office environment or advisors in the field, who can reflect and represent the communities that we serve.”

The firm also is adding to its diversity by working toward better gender representation by seeking a 50/50 gender split among new advisors.

Chan brings her unique perspective to SLFD as a first- generation immigrant who moved to Canada from Hong Kong. She first arrived in Canada on a student visa to study sociology and economics at the University of Toronto. Afterward, she returned to Hong Kong to work in marketing and public relations, then officially emigrated to Canada when in her early 20s.

Chan initially hoped to continue her career in marketing and public relations, but she encountered difficulty in finding opportunities because most corporations were looking for candidates with Canadian work experience. Chan applied to TD’s management training program, which became the starting point for her lengthy career in leadership at that firm.

“I can tell you, though, financial [services] institution or not, [the business] is all about people,” she says. “The people you work with and the people you help make a difference.”

In that way, Chan’s sociology degree has helped her career. “Understanding where people come from, why they do what they do and what they really value has helped me connect with people better,” she says.

Chan now uses her depth of experience in financial services to take time for mentoring relationships: “We need to see more role models who are willing to ‘pay it forward’ and are passionate about bringing in the next generation of talent and giving them opportunities to learn, shine and stretch.”

Mentoring goes both ways, she adds, explaining that younger sales reps have knowledge — about their peers’ values and technology, for example — that senior management could stand to learn.