Investment: United Assurance disappoints yet again

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UNITED ASSURANCE, the door-to-door life insurance company, yesterday released the latest of a long line of disappointing figures when it announced a 9 per cent fall in new business in 1998.

The company said weighted premiums were down to pounds 40.2m from pounds 44.2m in 1997. The figures were in stark contrast to rival offices such as Zurich Financial Services, which reported an 18 per cent rise. Sales at Legal & General, another rival, jumped 21 per cent.

Alan Frost, chief executive, said the figures should be considered in the light of full-year results to be announced next month, a sign the group will maintain its dividend.

United is struggling to emerge from the fall-out of the disastrous merger in 1996 between United Friendly and Refuge Assurance which gave birth to the group. At the time, of the merger the two companies attracted pounds 59.4m in new business between them. Since then, sales have fallen by 32 per cent.

The merger was piloted by Dr George Mack, who introduced compulsory redundancies to extract cost savings. In two years, the sales force shrank from 6,400 to 4,000.

The redundancies spread disaffection in the group's sales force, which has struggled to maintain productivity. United was also forced to abandon a loss-making attempt to move upmarket by launching a division to sell through independent financial advisers.

Like other door-to-door insurers, United has found it increasingly difficult to sell home service policies - where staff collect premiums from customers' homes. These involve higher charges than ordinary policies, where collection is by direct debit.

Dr Mack resigned in December 1997. The group was leaderless until July, when Alan Frost was hired from Abbey Life, another insurer with poor sales figures. Mr Frost immediately began a full-scale strategic review. Its outcome will be unveiled next month.

Shares in the group held up yesterday, rising 2.5p to 536p. Analysts said there was relief the figures had not been worse.