06/04/2013 03:54 EDT | Updated 08/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Sun Life Financial says it's considering new acquisitions in southeast Asia

TORONTO - Sun Life Financial (TSX:SLF) says it's considering making new acquisitions in Asia, both within its existing footprint and in other countries in the ASEAN region.

"We're certainly in the hunt," said chief executive Dean Connor on Tuesday. "We're certainly out talking to people."

Connor said the insurance company is interested in the region, dubbed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, because of how quickly its economies are growing.

"We see a lot of opportunity to grow our business alongside that," he said.

"We're less focused on the more mature markets like Japan and South Korea and Taiwan."

The insurance company already operates businesses in four out of the 10 ASEAN countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Although Connor said Sun Life is considering "many, many opportunities" for new acquisitions both within those four countries and outside of them, the company's primary focus is on growing its existing businesses.

In particular, Connor said Sun Life is focused on selling more insurance products and growing its pension offerings in countries like India and China.

"There's a lot of opportunity as people are pulled up from poverty into lower middle class," said Connor.

The aging of the Chinese population, largely due to the country's one child policy, will also create opportunities for insurance companies to hawk their pension plans.

"China needs a robust private sector pension system," said Connor. "We at Sun Life want to be part of that solution."

Connor made his comments during an interview Tuesday after addressing business leaders and government officials at the Canada-Asia 2013 conference in Vancouver.

At the conference, Connor called on Canadian companies to invest in Asia, but acknowledged that doing so can be risky.

"I completely understand that it's difficult if you're not doing business in Asia today to take the risk, especially if you're a publicly traded company," Connor said.

"Shareholders are, understandably, sometimes nervous about their companies going off and blazing new paths in foreign companies. There are examples where it hasn't worked out so well."

Each country poses its own challenges, said Connor. For instance, in China, there's an unlevel playing field between domestic insurance companies and foreign ones in terms of getting licenses to open up new branches.

"We have managed that by repositioning our business there as a domestic company, by taking a smaller percentage of it," said Connor.

"We did that several years ago, shifting from a 50 per cent ownership to a 25 per cent ownership, the thought being that we'd rather own a smaller percentage of something that could grow more quickly."

Meanwhile, Scotiabank (TSX:BNS) has been waiting for the Chinese government to approve its bid to buy just under 20 per cent of the Bank of Guangzhou — the maximum stake allowed under Chinese law — since September 2011.

"One thing we know about China is that decisions have a longer tail on them than they would in North America or other jurisdictions," Brian Porter, who has been tapped as the bank's future CEO, said last week.

Regulatory uncertainty has been a major challenge for insurance companies in India, said Connor.

"In 2010 the insurance regulator made swift and dramatic changes to the rules affecting life insurance companies, and across the industry it knocked sales back considerably."

But Connor believes it's ultimately worth the hassles.

"Our view is that you have to look at these as long term investments," he said.