Taking the entrepreneurship route is never easy, especially when you throw moving halfway across the world and embarking on an expat adventure into the mix; which is why successful entrepreneur tales always spark our attention and interest.
But although she’s managed to build a flourishing independent insurance company from the ground up, Singapore-based Danielle Warner, originally from the States, has had a noticeable lack of presence in the local media – unusual for a businesswoman so confident, poised and attractive. And yes, that’s why we practically jumped at the chance when she agreed to this interview!
When you say that insurance is “in your blood”, what do you mean?
It’s all I’ve ever known. My mom, my aunts and my cousins were all in the business, and I started interning at AIG in New York from the age of 16; I’d fly home from university to do that. After graduating, I landed a marketing job with them straightaway.
Did you never want to be a writer? I see you studied English Literature and Creative Writing.
No, never. But I loved to read – I still love to read, I just don’t get much of a chance anymore. I enjoy writing, too. In fact, I’m about to publish my first book – on insurance, of course! – and over the years I’ve contributed articles not only to Expat Living but also to The Straits Times, the Maple Leaf Times and the Singapore American Newsletter.
From the neat assemblies of toys, trikes and tiny shoes, I brilliantly conclude that you have children. What brought you to Singapore, and how did Danielle Bray become Danielle Warner?
After six years with AIG in New York, I came to Singapore in 2006 with my then boyfriend, Simon Warner – he’s British, and works in the same industry – when he was transferred to Asia. We were married in 2011 and have two children, Henry (3) and Charlotte (19 months).
Our first home was an old condo in Kim Yam Road near Robertson Quay: a great area, but Simon felt that the East Coast would be better for us as a family. So we moved into an old shophouse in Tembeling Road, until the termites drove us out about two and a half years ago and we found this one. It’s a good location with lots of parks, and Henry is at EtonHouse just across the road. There’s a great community of fulltime working mums like myself with helpers, who seem to have something planned for the kids every day.
What motivated you to start Expat Insurance?
I myself struggled to find insurance when I arrived, even though Simon and I were both in the business – so I had to wonder: what were other expats going through? Once I’d figured it all out, I started the business to answer that need.
The corporate or employee benefits side of what I do was born out of a private client relationship. It all started in 2010, when a family client of mine almost forced me into it; and I’m glad he did, because it has really become my passion: tailor-making employee benefit programmes for multinational corporations. Mark had 300 employees all over the world, and he told me that the trick was to see his company as one big family. As it turned out, he was so right: I found that although the scale is far bigger, the principles are the same.
How would you describe the past seven years?
Hard work! That just about sums it up: hard work every day. The business was my first child and I poured my heart and soul into it, as you do with your children. Fortunately, it’s work that I love, and I love the people I work with.
Would you consider expanding further?
Not by establishing offices throughout Asia – despite the standing joke in the office that we’re going for global domination! Though we support expatriates based all over the world, out teams in Singapore and Hong Kong manage it all; I don’t feel we have to be physically present everywhere. We sell the promise of protection and peace of mind, which requires a corruption-free environment. It’s a personal issue, too: I have a very young family and it’s important to be here for them.
So, what’s your secret for successfully juggling career and family?
Having a good team at home and a good team at the office means I never have to feel that my kids are not getting all the affection and attention they need and deserve. That’s what keeps me sane. Also, my retired mom regularly comes out from Pennsylvania to visit us for extended periods, usually for a total of around six months a year. This is such a wonderful luxury, and I know how lucky we are to have her here for us.
What do you do in your spare time?
I must admit that I struggle to switch off from the business side of things; it’s one of my personal weaknesses. If you asked my team, they’d say I work too hard! Mainly, I focus on spending quality time playing with my kids. We like to go swimming, to the zoo or to “Pirates”, which is our name for the Port of Lost Wonder on Sentosa; there’s a lovely little water park there. Finally, my one guilty pleasure is reading Expat Living each month from cover to cover. I’ve been doing that for the past ten years.
Tell us about your new book, Bulletproof – Building better employment benefits.
It shares all my secrets about employee benefits and provides a blueprint for structuring a successful programme, so the book is aimed at HR leaders and other benefit decision-makers. I’ve been working on it on and off since April 2015, with the help of an editor in the US.
What drives you?
I’m driven by my passion for meeting new people, and for connecting things – people to products, people to people – and because insurance is in my blood. Ours is not a stale, boring desk job; we meet people from every country across the globe, and from all walks of life. Structuring protection for an MNC’s international staff that includes people digging for gold in Cameroon or Liberia can be an exciting puzzle – how do you keep people safe in such circumstances? – and my team and I have learnt more about oil and gas, shipping and other marine industries than we could ever have imagined possible. Speaking of my dynamic team, it numbers more than 30 members from 14 different nationalities, and we currently take care of more than 20,000 people all over the world!
What would you say are your greatest strengths?
Energy and enthusiasm. Being so connected to my purpose makes it easy to stay on the right path, to know what we should and should not be doing – when something is right, and when to say no.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt?
That I can do just about anything I put my mind to. At the end of the day, when the time comes to disconnect from work, I’m able to come home and play roaring dragons with my little one. It’s something I have to be able to do.
Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Start with a good idea – a purpose – and find your niche. Then, test the market to see whether people value your idea or service and will pay for it. Secondly, know and understand your client. People want a total solution, and they want to understand clearly what you’re offering in order to be able to make an informed choice. Thirdly, surround yourself with cool people. It can be very lonely on your own. What’s more, by developing relationships with like-minded partners that are based on trust and not necessarily fuelled by financial aims, you’ll be adding real value to what you can offer your clients.
What are you looking forward to?
The launch of my book on 10 March! After that milestone, I aim to re-balance my focus in 2016 to spend more time with my family. Having hired a GM and a marketing manager last year, we have in place a fantastic leadership team to help us continue to grow.
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This article first appeared in LIV March 2016 issue of Expat Living. Subscribe.
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