Sandy Crombie: There's life after demutualisation for the man who likes the odd twirl
A day in the life of the Chief executive of Standard Life
Saturday 03 June 2006
Sandy Crombie has a guiding philosophy in life - "the key strategy to relaxation is to not get worked up in the first place". While today is the culmination of more than two years of hard work as chief executive of Standard Life - with his 2.4 million customers finally getting their chance to vote on the company's demutualisation - as ever, he is neither nervous nor excited, just "focused" on the challenges of the day ahead.
Like any other day, his alarm goes off at 6am and, like any other day, he eats only a bowl of fruit to get him going.
When he explains that his choice of breakfast is because he was once told to lose weight on account of his rising blood pressure, you can't help wondering if his calm exterior is only a front to a more racy lifestyle that he has managed to keep hidden.
But all the evidence points to the contrary. When a journalist once tried to dig some dirt on Crombie by chatting to his unsuspecting wife, she revealed that he was partial to the odd "twirl". While the reporter's eyes lit up at the thought of Standard Life's CEO trawling the dance floors of Edinburgh's nightclubs, it turned out Mrs Crombie was referring to his penchant for a Cadbury's Twirl. Apparently, eating chocolate bars is among the raciest activities that Crombie gets caught up in.
After spending some time with the man, one suspects he is one of those business leaders to have earned his position simply by being good at his job - diligent, intelligent and calm in a crisis - not because he has ruthlessly trampled his way to the top.
After making the short commute to work from his family house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Crombie's day starts by meeting one of his member advocates, who the CEO uses as a gauge for feelings and sentiment among the company's extensive customer base. Although there is still more than four hours to go until the demutualisation vote, Crombie has known the result of the poll for some time, with the last proxies having arrived over the past few days.
As he meets his advocate, he has to keep his poker face in tact for a few more hours. Having survived an entire evening with more than 20 journalists the night before, and given nothing away, he appears to be up to the challenge.
"I think I knew long before the voting started what the result would be. By the end of [our roadshows] we knew pretty well which messages were important to people, which messages they wanted to hear, what were the important questions. Once we'd been through that learning process, and seen how effective the arguments were in helping people make up their minds, the future was well set."
The board assemble at Standard Life's headquarters to make the short journey to Edinburgh's Conference Centre together. As they turn the corner, they are ambushed by the paparazzi who have turned out in force for the big day. Inside, Crombie and his crew get mingling with the 400 or so members that have made the trip to the meeting.
"I have to say, I do enjoy meeting the members at these events, and at roadshows," he says. "It's an opportunity to learn in advance what people are feeling, what's likely to come up in the meeting, and sometimes to answer questions for people who might not get the opportunity at the meeting."
Unsurprisingly, the majority of those who have turned out feel passionately about the company keeping its mutual status, and once the meeting gets under way, almost all the questions come from disgruntled customers who are furious at the idea of demutualisation.
The vote finally takes place - and Standard wins the overwhelming support of its members to push ahead with its plans to float this summer. At 98 per cent in favour, it is the second most comprehensive vote for demutualisation in financial services history. Only Norwich Union managed any better, when it received 99 per cent in 1997.
Perhaps more importantly for Crombie, almost 1.6 million of the 2.4 million members eligible, took the time to vote - some 50 per cent more than the last demutualisation vote in 2000.
Six years ago, Crombie had fought passionately to keep the company's mutual status. However, he insists that things have changed since then, dismissing suggestions that policyholders would have been much better off if the company had floated back then. Although the carpetbagger Fred Woollard said customers would have received average windfalls of £6,000 in 2000 (compared with an average of £1,700 this time), Crombie says this is all based on false logic.
"What a lot of people don't factor in, is that six years ago, no preparation had been done for demutualisation - this was a member-led proposal. So if the vote had gone the other way, we would have to start the process off, and we couldn't have demutualised before the middle of 2003 by my reckoning. At that point, the stock market was very low indeed. While fancy numbers were bandied about, about the value of Standard Life at that time, that value would not have been realised."
With the meeting over, Crombie is whisked off into a string of media interviews - three television spots, including a live interview on BBC News 24, a radio interview, and a handful of press one-to-ones. He also makes a short film for his staff, which is duly uploaded on to the company's intranet.
With the vote having been so one-sided, journalists are more interested in quizzing Crombie about the choppy state of the stock market. Will he or won't he pull the float if conditions do not settle down in the weeks ahead?
"I'm not at all fazed by it, to be honest. I was 10 years in charge of Standard Life Investments, and I went through many investment cycles and choppy periods. They really are not an indicator of interest among investors for an IPO of this nature.
"There's a hypothetical situation - if there's no demand, then you don't have an IPO. But that's not my expectation at this point in time. We have markets bobbing about - one minute they're down, the next minute they're up. That's not an indicator that there's a problem for our IPO."
After a quick meeting with his executive leadership team to discuss the next steps, Crombie's heading to the airport to catch a flight to London. With the vote won, he's off to meet the largest City institutions, to "dip a toe in the water", and gauge their appetite for the float.
Having spent 40 years with the company, Crombie has every intention of staying on with the group until, at the least, he reaches his 60 in three years. Although he understands that life is about to change again once he becomes a FTSE 100 chief executive, as ever Crombie is unfazed.
While he would be entitled to a celebration tonight, after one of the biggest days of his career, the day ends alone at Standard Life's London office flat - and straight to bed.
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