Otto Thorensen: An equitable Scot's day: fitness, finance and fantasy football

A Day in the Life: Otto Thoresen runs Aegon UK from his base in Edinburgh but his work encompasses broader Scottish, British and global issues
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"I'm an early bird, I've always been an early bird," says Otto Thoresen. A good thing, really, because the boss of Aegon UK (formerly Scottish Equitable) has a lot on his plate. As well as being the architect of a shake-up of one of the biggest life and pensions companies in the UK, he was in January appointed by the Government to head a taskforce whose job is to come up with a framework for a national generic financial advice service. The interim report is due out on Monday.

All that and the first meeting between the movers and shakers of Edinburgh's financial services community with Scotland's new Nationalist government.

But Mr Thoresen's first job is to meet his personal trainer in the gym at the company's headquarters on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

"I started doing this shortly after I took over as ceo because I could see how the lifestyle was not going to help me," he says. "There was a lot more dinners, a lot more travelling, I was just approaching 50, so it was one of those watershed moments. I do an hour with my trainer, a couple of mornings a week, and it's remarkable how much energy it gives you."


When Mr Thoresen, now 51, took the reins at Aegon he opted to split the business into two distinct units, one focusing on individual customers, the other on business clients. A high-profile appointment from Royal Bank of Scotland, Feilim Mackle, runs the former, and Mr Thoresen wants to get some early feedback from him "before he's fallen in with the pulse of the company".

Mr Mackle is a livewire, and Mr Thoresen speaks highly of him: "He brings a lot to the organisation, and has a lot of corporate maturity and experience. Already he has been out on the floor, the service area, that's just his philosophy."

He adds: "His understanding of how banks work and how banks deliver service; we can learn a lot from their experience. But the thing I really saw about Feilim is what he can do for us now that we are a big organisation. If you had gone back three or four years, we were only a modest size. For me to bring in someone who understands more about how large organisations work and has the experience of making things happen, it makes such a difference."

This is followed by a conference call with members of the audit committee of the Association of British Insurers. It will be the last meeting he chairs, before joining the trade body's life insurance committee.

"The audit committee doesn't sound very interesting but it does help you develop ideas in an informal environment before it reaches board level," he says.


Mr Thoresen is a relaxed and comfortable talker, with a ready laugh and an easy-going charm. The name is Norwegian, from where his father came, but Mr Thoresen takes after his mother – he couldn't be from anywhere other than Scotland. That charm will need to be deployed now, as he heads into the centre of the city for the first session of Edinburgh's Financial Services Advisory Board (Fisab) to be chaired by Scotland's new First Minister, Alex Salmond.

Fisab was put together in 2004 and meets at Charlotte Square, the traditional hub of the city's financial community, at least until the late 1990s when a wave of consolidation swept through the industry, and many companies, such Scottish Equitable, sought new bases on the edge of town. It brings together senior figures from the industry and Scotland's government. There are representatives from banks, life insurers, fund managers and others who are involved, such aspeople from the unions.

Mr Thoresen says: "What we talk about is what we can do to make the Scottish financial services industry more successful. We might have a discussion around transport, or accessibility to European destinations, or a lot of the time on talent, because the advantage here of having access to a really good pool of talent from the schools system is a big plus."

Mr Thoresen describes the meeting as a "good energetic session". He says he is pleased that the issues the industry was raising when Mr Salmond's predecessor, Jack McConnell, was in the chair are still being attended to.

"I was encouraged by the openness and willingness to listen, as well as to put a point of view. I can only take it as I find it, and for me, if there was going to be concern about a change, it would be that the opportunity to meet and put a point of view was less. But far from it. I think there is a real recognition that Scotland is going to be strong if its financial services industry is going to be strong," says Mr Thoresen, diplomatically.

The meeting runs from about 11.30am until lunch, but he tends not to stay for the food, preferring to head back to his office.


Mr Thoresen is on the telephone again for the company's monthly management board meeting. While there are facilities for video conferencing at Aegon, the directors tend to prefer a teleconference for these sessions, which include the company's chief executive, chief operating officer, finance director and the three country heads (UK, US and the Netherlands).

Mr Thoresen must report on developments in India, where the group's UK operation is involved in the creation of a new life insurance venture with an Indian partner. Other issues such as strategy will be also discussed.

The industry is closely watching the bid battle for Resolution Life. It wants to merge with Friends Provident, but is having to fend off an approach from Hugh Osmond's Pearl in alliance with the mutual insurer Royal London. Swiss Re and Standard Life have also said that they could table a rival bid.

In the UK, however, Aegon has gone quiet on the deal front after being an active purchaser of businesses a few years ago. Mr Thoresen says this is because those deals enabled the company to reach a size where it can now focus on expanding through organic growth. It is unlikely to be involved in M&A activity anytime soon.

The meeting finishes at 4pm, and Mr Thoresen spends the next couple of hours catching up with what is going on around him, informally meeting senior colleagues and making surehis finger is on the pulse of his business.


Mr Thoresen heads to dinner with representatives from Barclays, the bank with which Aegon has just signed a distribution deal that will see it selling some of its offerings through Barclays branches. It is the company's first distribution deal with a bank. Most of Aegon UK's wares are sold through financial advisers, which explains Mr Thoresen's appointment to the Government advice taskforce – this is a business which has financial advice hotwired into its DNA. But Mr Thoresen is only too happy to have joined forces with Barclays, which he hopes will develop and give the company a track record to enable it to pitch for further deals with banks.

At 10pm, with dinner out of the way, he will engage in a text-messaging exchange with his 16-year-old son, who boards at Fettes – Tony Blair's old school.

"He got fed up with the travelling back and forth and it means he gets to play football every night, which he loves. We always text each other at around 10pm, and again in the morning. We also discuss the fantasy football team we run in a league at his school. He came second last year, but he's more relaxed than me. I'm more competitive and this year I want to win."

The CV

Name: Otto Thoresen

Job: Chief executive, Aegon UK

Education: Aberdeen University (First-class Honours in mathematics and statistics).

Career: 1978 – Joined Scottish Equitable, trained as an actuary. 1982 – became fellow of Faculty of Actuaries; studied management development part-time at INSEAD, the French business school. 1984 – Marketing manager of Scottish Equitable. 1988 – joined Abbey Life as executive director, marketing. 1990 – joined Royal Insurance as general manager, strategic marketing. 1992 – became managing director of offshore business, Royal Life International. 1994 – Returned to Scottish Equitable to launch Scottish EquitableInternational, before becoming group development director with responsibility for strategic development along withmergers and acquisitions.1999 – delivered acquisition of life and pensions business of Guardian Royal Exchange.2000 – Appointed finance director of Aegon UK. 2004 – named successor to David Henderson as chief executive of Aegon UK.