Anthony Hilton: Geddes is steering a steady course towards growth


On Tuesday I met the man who insures more cars and houses in this country than anyone else, Paul Geddes, the chief executive of the RBS-owned Direct Line and Churchill brands.

He was parachuted in a couple of years ago to sort the business out and get it to the point where it could leave RBS and come to the stock market as a standalone company.

Chances are it will achieve that this autumn, and it needs to stay on schedule to meet the EU competition authorities' demand for RBS to get right out of the business in 2014. Provided Goldman Sachs do not overprice the issue as much as they usually do, the shares could prove popular.

For the moment, though, it remains a work in progress because in spite of being one of the best-known brands in the business, Direct Line has had a few car crashes of its own. This is partly because insurance fraud always rises in a recession, but mainly because changes in the law to allow US-style, ambulance-chasing lawyers in this country led to a massive surge in bodily injury claims – whiplash and the like.

The company should perhaps have seen this coming, but management was looking the other way. Pre-occupied with the challenge of merging what had been the separate businesses of Direct Line and Churchill, Mr Geddes' predecessors were not paying enough attention. The result was a plunge into losses.

Mr Geddes has turned the business round by applying the usual medicine for an insurance company in distress – putting up prices, refusing to cover riskier-looking business and cutting administrative costs.

The result, in a remarkably short time, is a significant turnaround from minus £350 million to plus £450 million in operating profits. And there should be more to come as the group gets better mining its vast data base; as it develops its offer and applies its technology to insure small businesses in addition to consumers; and when at some point interest rates rise and boost investment returns.

The medium-term target is a return on equity capital in the mid-teens and the group recently raised a hefty loan to help it get there.

But perhaps because from the inside at RBS it has seen all to clearly what happens when financial groups fly to close to the sun, its watchword for the future is stability – nice, steady growth, not shooting the lights out.