Home Tidlor Story Culture Athitaya Phoonwathu's Inspiring Transition: From HR to Insurance Leader

Athitaya Phoonwathu's Inspiring Transition: From HR to Insurance Leader

01 November 2023
Athitaya Phoonwathu

Back when most people envisioned success in life as working for large, stable corporations, only a few were willing to step out of the dream, opting to work for small, virtually unknown lender at that time.

Athitaya Phoonwathu, Chief Insurance Officer, is one of the few who made the decision to leave the world's leading insurance companies and join a small, virtually unknown Thai lender called "Ngern Tidlor". She is known for her passion for embracing new challenges, adapting and learning continuously. She is always excited about opportunities to grow along with the organization using innovative methods and fresh ideas.

Certainly, the path she chose was filled with challenges. She started her career at Ngern Tidlor as the head of the Human Resources Department, which later changed its name to the "Happy People" Department (HP).

Shortly after that, she received the opportunity to help establish the insurance brokerage business, which was a new venture for Ngern Tidlor at the time, in addition to her role in overseeing the HP Department.

Even though her knowledge of the insurance business was minimal at that time, in just a few short years, Athitaya managed to transform Ngern Tidlor's insurance broker business into a leading player in the Thai insurance broker market, and also received recognition in the field of Insurance Technology (InsurTech) from both domestic and international competitions.

These accomplishments serve as proof of her capabilities as a female master mind of TIDLOR Insurance Broker.

Equally intriguing is the mindset that led her to success in her chosen career path, which is articulated in this interview.

“When I was a child, I wasn't particularly talented. But I learned that with effort, I could succeed at anything. I believe that in life, nothing comes easily. If you want to know, you must learn. If you want to understand, you must ask. If you want to succeed, you must invest your time and effort and take real action.”

This is what Athitaya has always told herself, and it's one of the key mantras that has guided her through every challenge.

“Back in primary school, I used to wonder why some friends who played around with me still managed to score top marks. So, I decided to stop playing and read books just like them. I really immersed myself in reading. When the exam results came out, to my surprise, I also got the top rank. So, it became something that stuck with me, that if there's something I don't know, I'll try to read and find information to learn.”


Discovering her Identity at‘ Ngern Tidlor’

Athitaya went on to share her educational and career journey. After completing her bachelor's degree in Commerce and Accountancy from Chulalongkorn University, she decided to pursue further studies in Organization Development because she did not want to work with numbers.

She began her career as a consultant in Organization Design and later had the opportunity to work in the Telecoms industry with a promising new brand called DTAC. This was followed by roles at companies like Pfizer, before she discovered that ‘Ngern Tidlor’ truly aligned with her authentic self.

“Working at Pfizer, I managed organizational strategy for both Thailand and Vietnam for about seven years. Then, there was a job placement company that approached me and asked if I was interested in talking to a small microfinance company that was in a period of growth. The company was being led by executives who had come from large companies like GE and were committed to making the company truly grow. At that time, I thought I would just give it a chance and make a decision later.

When I spoke with a former MD of Ngern Tidlor, he introduced me to the company. To be honest, at that time, I didn't know much about Ngern Tidlor. I wasn't sure what the company did, but I had heard its name from TV commercials. If you ask why I got interested, it might be because this kind of HR Operations work was new to me. The financial business that operates through branches was something I hadn't done before. But when I listened and looked at the scope of work, it seemed exciting, and there were many new things to learn and opportunities to create and accomplish.

And that's exactly how it was. My first task was to recruit people to work at Ngern Tidlor. At that time, we were expanding with many new branches. Although I had experience in HR, I had never done this kind of operations where we needed to hire many people at once. So, I had to gather information and learn how to make it work.

As mentioned, I had never worked for a company with so many branches before. When I had to recruit people to work in branches in different provinces, it was a lot of fun. I was born and raised in Bangkok, studied in Bangkok, and hung out around Siam Square. But this job allowed me to go to different provinces, and it really opened my eyes. I traveled to Khon Kaen, Kalasin, and Sakon Nakhon.

And as every working day became enjoyable, I discovered that this place matched my personality and character perfectly. Besides offering me opportunities to learn and try new things, at Ngern Tidlor, we are part of a relaxed and easygoing culture. I can wear jeans and T-shirts to work, eat any kind of food. It suits those who are easygoing and laid-back, just like me.”


Evolving HP beyond the back office

Having the opportunity to oversee HP work at Ngern Tidlor not only made Athitaya and the HP team the main driving force for the successful collaboration of NTLers to create the unique "Corporate Culture and Values" but also truly reflected the true DNA of NTLers.

Another source of pride for Athitaya is transforming the HP team at Ngern Tidlor into more than a back-office team.

“The first message I tried to convey to the team is that HP should not be rule enforcers. Because everyone at Ngern Tidlor is a professional and knows what needs or don’t need to be done. Therefore, the team's mission should be to think about how they can help the business move forward without having to worry about the back end. This allows our team to have the opportunity to create new things, such as increasing employee benefits like taking day off on their birthday, providing funds for employees to pursue master's degrees, or even company visits overseas. We are one of the few private companies that offer more than 5,000 employees the opportunity to purchase TIDLOR shares at IPO prices to become shareholders and grow together.

But what impressed me the most is that everyone in the HP team is open-minded and can work towards the goal I've always been trying to convey. It's about being a team that doesn't just follow, but a team that understands and supports the business. This means that when the company is going to launch new products, the HP team has to be involved in the discussion, and every department has to remind each other not to forget to inform HP. Because the HP team will help think about how to prepare training for branch members who are on the front lines.”


Building an Insurance Team from Scratch

While having fun and enjoying the process of building the HP team, Athitaya also received an assignment from Piyasak Ukritnukun, Managing Director of Ngern Tidlor, to oversee and build the insurance brokerage team.

This is another business that Ngern Tidlor wanted to develop simultaneously.

“The morning after accepting the task assignment from the MD, I was still quite perplexed about how to start given that my knowledge in insurance at that time was basically zero. The best solution to the problem then was to dive in, learn on my own first. Fortunately, the team members at HP were all capable of managing their own work and understanding the work direction we had discussed. This allowed us to have the time to build an insurance team.

Once I started gaining some knowledge about the roles of insurance brokerage through research and asking various people, I began to expand my efforts further. This was to understand how we could create a better customer experience than other insurance brokers and think about what additional teams we needed such as the underwriting team for the branches, the insurance coach team, and claims team. The Insurance coach team helps to train branch employees on how to sell insurance. The claims team, which was created based on an understanding that customers sometimes couldn't settle claims with insurance companies. This team was to help facilitate the claims process between customers and insurance companies. We carefully selected individuals with insurance knowledge, empathy, and negotiation skills to work in this team, which has become one of TIDLOR Insurance Broker's strengths in creating customer satisfaction.”


Always be Ready to Do the Work and Take Risk

One of the advantages of building an insurance business from a small team, as shared by Athitaya, is that it allows you to have the opportunity to dive into every detail yourself together with your team members.

“Every night, I had to sit down and check how many cases the team members approved. Who made any mistakes. I checked every case. Then, I called the team members to discuss to ensure everyone understands. We started from scratch, so we had to design every process ourselves, from customer journey to the installment tracking process. We built, learned, and revised to improve continuously.

At that time, I can tell you that every team wanted to help the insurance team. However, we couldn't really explain what we were doing and what we needed help on. So, I had to get down to work and do everything myself first. For instance, when developing a system, we had the IT team to help with coding. But at that time, there was no User Experience (UX) or User Interface (UI) team. So, we had to design everything ourselves, specifying how we wanted it, how we wanted customers to click and what actions they should take, down to the exact words.

But the real challenge, dating back almost 7 years ago, was building a platform. This was a central system that presented various insurance products of insurance companies. Our branch employees could select from a variety of products and immediately present and sell to customers.

At that time, the IT team mentioned a limitation that the system couldn't perform a pilot test for specific areas. If we were to implement the system, it had to be rolled out nationwide to all branches simultaneously. This meant that if the system failed, all branches across the country would be unable to sell insurance, and there was no backup system. The only options were either 'go' or 'no go.'

During that time, we also had to go out and provide training to branches across the country ourselves because the team was small, and the system was not yet stable. I remember having to call IT during training sessions to ask what to do after clicking on a specific part of the system. In addition, we promoted to the branch staff that clicking at a certain point would result in an instant policy. However, when the sales started and two days had passed since clicking, no policies had been issued.

It was a stressful period because branches were calling in and inquiring. Our team not only skipped lunch but also worked together until late at night to solve the problem. This went on for a while, but we were dedicated and determined to create the best central system possible, making it convenient for our branches nationwide. And if it weren't Ngern Tidlor, we wouldn't have been able to handle it this way. This experience has become one of the most valuable and challenging lessons for us.”

At this point, we should realize that the source of the ‘driving force’ which has led Athitaya to success on her career journey is her 'mindset.' It is about being open to opportunities that come her way, being ready to adapt and learn continuously, and having the courage to think and experiment. These traits are ingrained in her DNA.


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