Shin shuns limelight as Korea Life goes public

By Rhee So-eui

SEOUL (BestGrowthStock) – Shin Eun-chul is a four-decade insurance veteran who, into his eighth year in charge of South Korea’s No.2 life insurer, has not given any media interviews.

That low profile is not unusual for the head of a flagship of one of South Korea’s chaebol — large, family-owned business groups — where leadership is expected to be quiet and efficient and to not steal the limelight from the group’s owners.

And Shin’s boss, Hanwha Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn is clearly not someone to cross. In 2007, Kim was handed a jail sentence for abducting and hitting karaoke bar workers with a steel pipe for attacking his son.

But Shin, 63, may be about to emerge from the shadows.

After 30 years at Samsung Life Insurance, he switched in 2003 to smaller rival Korea Life Insurance Co Ltd (088350.KS: ) where his task is to build a financial powerhouse for Hanwha, which has grown from a gunpowder maker into a sprawling conglomerate with interests in petrochemicals and building to running holiday resorts.

Shin clearly knows his business well.

He has turned around the once-ailing Korea Life, overseeing its expansion into China and Vietnam, and is now vying with bigger domestic and Japanese rivals for investors’ cash.

Under his leadership, Korea Life — created in 1946 as the country’s first life insurer — has cleared more than 2 trillion won ($1.8 billion) in accumulated losses and almost doubled its assets to 57 trillion won.

Shin on Wednesday took Korea Life to the public, having raised $1.6 billion in the country’s biggest IPO in four years. Dressed in a dark suit and pink tie, he pressed the button to start trading in the shares and appeared surprised at the heavy trading volume in the first few minutes.

Bigger listings planned for the weeks ahead — Samsung Life hopes to raise around $4 billion and Japan’s Dai-ichi Mutual Life plans a $12 billion IPO — prompted a cautious Shin to cut the price of the offering to keep investors interested.

“FOUR VIRTUES”

Educated locally, Shin, who is married and has a son and a daughter, began his career in 1972 at Samsung Life, rising to head its insurance business in 2000.

In a rare local media profile recently, Shin outlined a four-point, back-to-basics management philosophy that focused on the fundamentals of the life insurance business, eschewing diversification into other financial products.

To this end, Korea Life maintains the most conservative investment portfolio among the country’s top three insurers, with a heavy bias toward fixed-income bonds.

Like many Koreans, Shin is said to be a keen golfer, and also enjoys hiking.

“I’ve come across him in the elevator, but have never seen him featured in interview stories. He keeps a low profile and we don’t know much about him outside the job,” confided one Korea Life employee, who asked not to be named.

Post-IPO, Korea Life (slogan: Love Your Life, Love Your Dream) is set to be a main pillar in Hanwha’s drive to raise its profile in a financial sector where it has little experience.

Hanwha Securities (003530.KS: ) recently paid $425 million for two local units of Prudential Financial (PRU.N: ), boosting its broking branches to 132 and giving Korea Life new sales channels to add to its 697 branches and over 21,000 financial planners.

As competition gets tougher in South Korea’s $66 billion insurance market, Asia’s third-largest after Japan and China, media-shy Shin has looked overseas, setting up a Vietnamese unit last year and signing a deal for a joint venture in China.

“Life insurers have had little money to spend … but with the IPO proceeds they can attempt M&A to grow bigger and become major financial groups to rival foreign leaders,” said Jung Seung-hee, senior researcher at Hana Institute of Finance.

Korea’s three leading insurers, Samsung Life, Korea Life and Kyobo, face increasing competition from foreign rivals such as ING (ING.AS: ), Allianz (ALVG.DE: ) and AIA (AIG.N: ) as well as from local banks that have begun selling insurance products.

Stock Market Today

($1=1133.7 Won)

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Shin shuns limelight as Korea Life goes public