[BUSINESS] Ed Chin's AIS Corp - Insurance Benefits for Asian Americans
- Ed Chin
By Cora Daniels
Chin is the first to admit that he's cocky and outspoken. So it's no
surprise that this third-generation Chinese American "raised hell"
at the insurance company where he worked in the 1960s after noticing
that Asians were being overcharged for insurance products. But
seeing not enough progress, Chinwho calls insurance companies
glorified "bookies"quit his job and in 1979 started AIS Corp. in
Oakland. Today AIS provides small- and mid-sized companies the kinds
of sophisticated insurance packages and benefits usually reserved
for corporate America.
Chin found his niche by paying special attention to the Asian
marketplace. Everyone on his 25-person staff speaks at least two
languages, allowing Asian immigrants who call the agency to speak to
a representative not only in their native language but often in
their particular dialect too. In 1981 he started the revolutionary
practice of sending clients a single bill with all their different
insurance charges. Over the years he's won numerous industry awards,
and clients have spread the word about his company outside the Asian
community, keeping AIS growing. Last year his company generated $40
million in sales, twice its revenue six years ago.
I started in the insurance business back in 1960. My father was ill,
and we didn't have the $5,000 to cover his hospital bill. The
insurance agent came to the hospital and said my dad had
a "preexisting condition," so they wouldn't pay it. At the time, I
was 20 years old and going to the University of California at
Berkeley to become a teacher. I quit school and began working odd
jobs to pay the bill so they would release him. It took two months.
While I was at the hospital, I asked the insurance agent how much
money he made. He had a suit and tie on but didn't impress me as
being really bright. He said someone could make $15,000 a year for
selling $1 million worth of insurance. Teachers then only made
$4,800 a year. I gave up dreams of teaching and applied for jobs in
insurance instead. I must have had 20 interviews and was turned down
by everyone. I didn't fit the profile: blond, blue-eyed college
graduate, 25 years old with a family. In December 1960, I finally
got a job as an agent at a major insurance firm.
My first six months I made $36,000 in commissions. They asked me if
I would sell to the Asian marketplace. They said I could run a
Chinatown branch one day. I asked my manager, a Castilian from
Spain, why he didn't go and run a Mexican branch.
I was a troublemaker from the beginning, but I did start selling to
the Asian market. There was a lot of discrimination against Asians
when it came to insurance. Like members of other minority groups,
they were sold the products with the highest premiums. On claim
forms you had to mark off your race. The choices were Negroid,
Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Other. Mongoloid? Are we supposed to be
mentally retarded? I started raising hell about it. But no one could
answer that question. I was a leading producer in the agency, but by
1975, when I was 36, I had had enough and retired.
Then, in 1979, I met my wife, so I had to work again. I wanted to
start a company that would offer Asian-owned businesses all types of
insurance at fair prices. But in California at the time, none of the
big carriers wanted to sell insurance through a small, unknown
agency. I knew it could work because I knew the insurance business
and I knew the Asian community. I speak several dialects of Chinese,
as well as Japanese. So I went into the deep corners of Chinatown,
Koreatown, and Japantown, and lined up dozens of prospective
clients. By 1981, I was selling half a dozen kinds of insurance from
companies like Blue Cross/Blue Shield and VSP.
Long before I started my company, I thought that if I could persuade
Asian businesses to pool together, they could get better rates. But
I knew it was going to be challenging to persuade them to do this.
White corporate America doesn't understand that you've got
segregation like you wouldn't believe in the Asian marketplace. The
Canton guys work with the Cantonese, Shanghainese work with the
Shanghainese; then there's the Mandarins, Taiwanese, Koreans,
whoever, and everyone looks down on each other. I encouraged them to
form business organizations so they could buy in a group. Now we
provide insurance to 7,000 businesses and organizations across ten
states and have the biggest names in the field working with us. We
charge clients for all of their insurance on a single, customized
bill, which most agencies say isn't done.
Five years ago, 95% of my business was with Asian businesses. Then I
started getting calls from other businesses wondering if we would
work with them too. Today my clients are probably 60% Asian, 40% non-
Asian. My crusade has always been to bring a picture of what goes on
in the Asian community to white corporate Americaand bring what
goes on in white corporate America to the Asian community.