Now, looking back at a career in insurance which spans 60 years, Mr. Schaffter, a right-handed fast medium bowler, unequivocally states that cricket was one of his greatest teachers in life and business. Further, he adds that, even in the modern day, the sport can still teach, to those willing to learn, the practice of team spirit and thinking of the rest of the team above oneself. It also allows one to become unselfish.
And, perhaps most important of all, the visibility that he garnered from representing his country resulted in opening many doors in his insurance career. Be it helping him bond with his superior while working at the local office of Canada's Manufacturers Life or getting more business during his time as a lowly insurance agent.
Mr. Schaffter's life was not easy by any means. Dogged by the death of his parents at a relatively young age, he credits his schooling at the elite St. Thomas' College, where his father taught for 25 years, as giving him the tools he needed for life. However, even with a scholarship to attend the school, followed by a year at university studying medicine, he still had to walk the streets of Colombo for a full year before getting his first job in 1952 as a clerk at Ceylon Insurance, owned by Justin Kotelawala (the then Prime Minister's brother).
According to Mr. Schaffter, it was hard to get a job because one needed a good family background and influence to get into most British firms. This was while others were getting hired straight out of school due to them being "staff assisted" or coming from the right family.
In addition, there were other differences between then and now, such as insurance in the 1950s and 1960s being dominated by Caucasians who, he says, were excellent in man management. He especially notes that, pertaining to the agency houses or British Mercantile firms, they were well known for their attention to detail and work ethic. It was said that they knew if a superintendent used one extra nail and they would catch onto it. This was despite owners being in Britain and estates being managed by those more than a hundred miles away, in their Colombo offices. Those who worked for agency houses say there were nothing like them in terms of business acumen.
In addition, Mr. Schaffter notes that there was an absolute hierarchy in the insurance industry back then, as only clerks and executives made up the organisational ladder, with nothing in between. Clerks were ‘treated like dirt’ by the typical executive, while executives were not even allowed to sign letters on behalf of their companies; only directors could sign. At that time, he remarks, people were aware that the company was responsible for anything written on its behalf and, so, took this seriously. Today, anybody can sign a letter, with the company still being responsible, and yet companies do not seem to put much stock in this.
At the same time, no one can doubt that Mr. Schaffter's career in insurance, spanning 60 years, has been illustrious. After his start at Ceylon Insurance, he moved over to Manufacturers Life (now Manual Life) and swiftly rose in the ranks to ultimately become an executive and third in command, his ascension aided by him alone discovering a major fraud at the company. But this potentially meteoric rise was unfortunately stalled when this company decided to pull out of the country following a leftist government being voted in, in the early 1960s. As a result, he moved over to Carsons Cumberbatch, which had taken over the Canadian company's clients. This was his home for 14 years, during which he passed his insurance exams and built the company’s life, and later non-life, portfolios. Also within this span, Carsons and all other private insurers, were nationalised and became departments of what is today the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation.
Following being passed over for promotion several times, Mr. Schaffter decided to leave and pursue his fortune as a lowly insurance agent. But, he almost did not receive the licence he was promised because of a last minute policy shift by the then Minister in charge. But, eventually, he did get his licence and started a tough, yet eventful, 12 years, during which he built a client base locally, as well as in Chennai, eventually expanding from offering only life insurance to even consulting on non-life policies.
He followed this by returning home to work full time, after advising the then government to switch to the principal agency model, and took on the reins of three such agencies locally; his own "one man show", James Finlay's and another, government-backed agency. Later, in 1987, after he had to cash out due to the insurance industry being privatised, he became heavily involved in setting up CTC Eagle Insurance and, following this, in 1994, he set up Janashakthi, perhaps his life's crowning entrepreneurial achievement.
Now, coming upon 20 years, Janashakthi is ranked fifth island-wide in terms of its amalgamated fund, thanks to Rs. 7 billion in gross written premiums (revenues), but, according to Mr. Schaffter, the future is not so easy to foretell. He says only the motor vehicle insurance area, in the non-life sector, is growing rapidly. And, while there is some development, all resulting new business, in his opinion, is being siphoned to the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation.
He also adds that insurance survives only if the economy does well so, if people don't have money in their pockets, they do not take out life insurance. If they live hand to mouth, they don't see it as a priority, even though they might come to need it. Prompted by a question by the Business Times (BT), on how competitive the local industry is today, he said currently, anyone entering the insurance field will find it extremely difficult to get on. There is only room in the local industry for six or seven companies.
In addition, answering another question by BT, and referring to new entrants Arpico Insurance and the Harry Jayawardena-controlled Continental Insurance, he opines that, despite their 'tithe' business, which is from associates, there is little scope for these two companies, especially in terms of going out and canvassing business from the market and getting clients away from embedded competitors. He adds that insurance is a highly saturated market with big companies losing business to smaller companies, and it is hard to survive like this. As such, it is unlikely that they would become top-tier companies.
However, despite his pragmatism, the most telling difference between him and today's corporate leaders is the way he talks about his journey. He takes great pride in recounting the names of those he has worked for, as well as those working for him, especially in the early days. Something seldom heard when talking to today's top corporates, who often consider the people working for them as just a part of the bottom line, rarely giving them their due credit; a common symptom of today's age of disposable employees.