Bloomer shores up position with Prudential sales rise

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Jonathan Bloomer, the chief executive of Prudential, started the campaign to firm up his fragile shareholder support yesterday. He unveiled a better-than-expected 26 per cent rise in group insurance sales for 2004 and announced bullish double-digit growth targets for 2005.

Reporting on fourth-quarter trading, Prudential showed strong growth in all its major markets - the UK, US and Asia - during 2004, including record inflows into the retail arm of its fund management business, M&G.

Mr Bloomer almost lost his job last October after surprising investors with a £1bn rights issue, the majority of which he said was earmarked for UK expansion. Revealing a 21 per cent rise in its underlying UK insurance business for 2004, Mr Bloomer reiterated yesterday the group's focus on its home market, predicting Prudential would grow at least twice as fast as the overall market in 2005.

In the US, new business was up 21 per cent in 2004 androse 14 per cent in Asia for the year.

The group also announced two new distribution deals - supplying annuities for St James's Place Capital and securing a place on a prominent financial advisers' panel of providers - adding to a series of recent tie-ups it has sealed to take advantage of changes to financial services distribution rules.

Mr Bloomer emphasised that the group was keen to take advantage of any opportunities to forge alliances with high street banks as and when they reassess their existing relationships over the coming year.

Under the new rules, distributors can be tied to as many or as few financial providers as they like. Previously, they had to offer customers the choice of products from the whole market, or had to be tied to one provider.

Commenting on the recent pressure on his job, Mr Bloomer said he had not set specific targets to justify the rights issue to shareholders. However, he added: "It will inevitably come out as we come through 2005 and 2006. Are we getting on to panels - are we getting our fair share, or more than our fair share of distribution? As we go through results in a month's time, are we continuing to deliver? That's got to be our goal - that's my goal."

This month, Prudential fired its communications manager, Geraldine Davies, as it restructured its investor relations and media departments after the rights issue. Mr Bloomer denied yesterday he had "shot the messenger" but admitted the group had made mistakes on communication last year, and had decided to make changes to its entire external relations division.