Aflac CEO Q&A: Quake devastation always a shock

AP News
Posted: Mar 14, 2011 3:09 PM
Aflac CEO Q&A: Quake devastation always a shock

The massive earthquake and tsunami struck just as Daniel Amos was preparing to fly to Japan. It was deja vu all over again.

As CEO of Aflac Inc., Amos visits the country about eight times each year, where the insurance company most Americans associate with a quacking duck does 75 percent of its business.

Amos immediately knew it was going to be a different kind of trip when he left on Sunday. The video clips on TV reminded him of another time he had visited the country in the wake of a temblor that hit Kobe in 1995.

"There was sheer devastation then and now - it's always a shock," said Amos. On Monday, Aflac shares were off 4.5 percent at $53.

Amos shared his thoughts with The Associated Press in a brief phone interview from Columbus, Ga., where the company is based, as he was preparing to leave. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q: This is your second time visiting Japan after a major quake. What will you be doing during there?

A: This kind of an event shows how little control we have over nature. And as hard as we work to prepare, some things are always outside out control.

The clips on TV are unbelievable. I already had this trip planned, but didn't know it would turn out this way. Just like last time, I have a check to deliver to the International Red Cross of 100 million yen and intend to help in any way I can.

Q: What does the quake mean for Aflac?

A: We don't sell property insurance, so the massive damages to homes and cars won't affect us. But we do sell life and medical insurance. The death toll is climbing as will the number of people who seek treatment from injuries at hospitals. One out of four homes in Japan has bought health insurance from us.

However, we are well prepared and well reserved for this kind of a scenario. We are prepared for the scale of a Kobe earthquake, where 6,000 people died.

Q: Have you visited the northern region of Japan that was devastated by the quake?

A: I've been there many times. Sendai is a smaller city that is traditional in nature and doesn't get the influx of international passengers like in Tokyo or Osaka. It's a heartland city, like a Sacramento or Birmingham, Ala.

It's on the coast, about 200 miles north of Tokyo. It's not international like Tokyo where you can find people who can speak English and get American TV. It's an old town with old traditional restaurants.

Q: How is your Japanese?

A: I know a few words. I can get a bowl of soup and ask the way to the bathroom.

Q: So, why does Aflac have such a huge presence in Japan?

A: We have been in Japan for 25 years now. The story behind that is that our former CEO John Amos went to the world fair in Osaka around 1970 and found Japan to be a thriving economy. And yet he noticed that people wore surgical masks. He asked and found that people wore the masks because they didn't want to spread the common cold.

He figured that if people were so health conscious, then they would buy insurance. We got licensed to sell insurance in Japan in 1974 and have now become the third most profitable foreign company doing business in Japan.

We insure 25 percent of Japanese households and 90 percent of Japanese companies offer Aflac insurance to their employees.

Q: Are all of your employees in Japan OK?

A: All our employees are safe. We have 100 offices throughout Japan, of which only seven have been hit to some degree by the tsunami affecting less than 100 out of 5,000 employees in Japan. However, we have over 100,000 independent agents who sell insurance for us and others and we are worried about them.

I want to be there to show support and compassion. I want them to know we really care and that we feel their pain.

Q: How well known is Aflac in Japan _ does the duck scream Aflac in commercials there, too?

A: The Aflac duck is even more popular in Japan with a 97 percent recognition, versus 94 percent in the United States. However, the American duck is too loud for the Japanese culture. There the duck has a softer, sweeter voice.