Flak rains down on insurers

Managers are accused of a 'terrible lemming-like tendency'. Antonia Feuchtwanger reports
HALF THE chief executives of Britain's eight top insurers do not have university degrees, an Independent on Sunday straw poll has shown after a Department of Trade and Industry report criticised the industry for employing too few graduates.

Insurance companies hold around 50 per cent of the total savings of British citizens, in the form of pensions and life policies. They are a principal source of capital for industry.

But a DTI "competitiveness analysis" last week said insurance company managers tended to be home-grown, too inward-looking and slow to embrace modern management techniques.

Of those eight chief executives, half (though not the same half as lack degrees) have been with one company for much or all of their working lives.

That could explain some of the industry's disasters. "Because so many people in insurance have never worked anywhere else," explains David Worsfold, editor of Post Magazine, the insurance weekly, "they have this terrible lemming-like tendency. When in the early 1980s endowment mortgages were about to boom, all the life insurers to a man dropped their medical questionnaires to build business fast. So you had brokers going round hospitals signing up death-bed cases for life assurance - a disaster."

Mr Worsfold added: "The same happened when they all rushed into estate agency and mortgage indemnity insurance and lost vast sums."

However, of the seven top quoted insurers and Standard Life - the largest mutual - only one, Sun Alliance, is run by a non-graduate, Roger Taylor. He has never worked anywhere else.

Britain's largest insurer, the Prudential, is now headed by Peter Davis, who has no degree but an impressive previous record as chairman of the media group Reed International.

So the picture at the very top is more complicated than the DTI report, written by industry secondees, suggests. And as a spokesman for Sun Alliance's Mr Taylor points out: "You have to remember that far fewer people now of an age to run companies went to university 40 years ago than would do today."

However, Richard Gamble, the non-graduate chief executive of Royal Insurance who arrived from British Airways, agrees with the DTI report that insurers can be too in-bred.

"When I became the first ever outsider to go straight on to the Royal board, I found that they had made a profit every year for 145 years and were content. They needed people from outside to say they could do a much better job." He had to import staff who had worked at companies such as Marks and Spencer, Virgin Airlines, George Wimpey and McDonnell-Douglas.

David Prosser, a graduate who became chief executive of Legal & General after wide City experience, said: "Of my top 20 senior managers, at least half are from outside."

But Jim Stretton, a graduate and actuary who joined Standard Life 30 years ago and is now chief executive, said: "You need to look outside, but you can do that with long-term Standard Life employees. You don't have to play musical chairs with people."

To Mr Wolsford, however, the phenomenal success of multi-millionaire Peter Wood's Direct Line, with its distinctive red telephone brand, has demonstrated how much insurers need to learn about marketing, in particular. "Insurers think their brand is their name," he said. They don't realise most people don't know one insurer from the next."