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China tech

China's Ping An Insurance finds success with focus on tech

Aggressive R&D begins to pay off and complement main business

The Ping An Good Doctor app lets people consult a doctor online.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Ping An Insurance Group's focus on technology has begun to bear fruit in the group's efforts to capture China's more than 500 million internet users.

China's top insurer by market capitalization has spent 1% of its annual revenue on research and development. Operating profit in its internet service segments grew by 25% last year to 6.7 billion yuan ($1 billion).

The combined valuation of two publicly traded technology units and three others stands at $70 billion, co-CEO Jessica Tan said at an earnings event this month.

Synergies are growing between these operations and the group's mainstay insurance business. Ping An's strategy is to gain business by understanding the insurance needs of consumers based on data collected through online services. Last year, 36% of 40 million new insurance customers came to the company that way.

Online peer-to-peer financial services company Lufax is one promising business, with registered users increasing 19% in 2018 to 40.35 million. It helps individuals manage assets and lend or borrow money online. Even as Chinese authorities crack down on peer-to-peer financing amid a broader deleveraging drive, outstanding debt managed by Lufax has climbed 30%.

Another is Oneconnect, which provides cloud services to roughly 3,200 financial institutions.

Ping An Good Doctor, which debuted on the Hong Kong stock market last May, provides an online health care platform that lets users consult a doctor or book hospital appointments via smartphone. The business is not yet profitable but is growing rapidly, with revenue rising 79% and the number of registered users reaching 260 million.

The other publicly traded tech unit is New York-listed Autohome, which operates an online platform to trade cars. Ping An Health Connect, which offers cloud services to health care practices, rounds out the group.

The three unlisted businesses are all so-called unicorns, or privately held businesses valued at more than $1 billion. Lufax is valued at $39.4 billion, Oneconnect at $7.5 billion and Ping An Health Connect at $8.8 billion.

Ping An has been adept at using big-data analysis to gain new customers and design products, said a source at Fitch Ratings.

Its ability to take advantage of fintech operations has given its insurance business a lift. Ping An is catching up quickly to China Life Insurance, long the country's life insurance leader in market share. "Ping An has succeeded in cross-selling internet services and insurance policies, and the company could surpass China Life Insurance," said Yuki Katayama of the NLI Research Institute.

Ping An's market capitalization has more than doubled in three years to around $200 billion. Among private companies, the figure trails only big names like Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings.

The company aims to be among the world's leading retail finance groups, co-CEO Tan has said. It is pursuing this by moving outside the traditional bailiwick of an insurance company. 

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