Support for vote on Standard Life demutualisation

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The Independent Online

Fred Wollard, the Monaco-based investor, has received backing from several heavyweight City institutions in his attempts to force Standard Life, the life insurance group, to allow its 2.5 million policyholders to vote on demutualisation.

Colin McLean, head of Scottish Value Management which buys up second-hand policies, has shocked the Edinburgh financial establishment by publicly calling for a debate on the issue in the face of opposition from Standard Life's board, who maintain that converting to a plc will damage the brand's customer-friendly image.

Barclays Global Investors and Dresdner RCM, which have specialist funds which investing in second-hand endowment policies, are also believed to be backing calls for policyholders to be allowed to vote on the issue.

The funds which collectively own policies worth £100m have a vested interest in the demutualisation issue since under Standard Life's rules they do not automatically qualify for voting rights. These are granted at the discretion of the Standard Life board.

Mr Woollard claims Standard Life could be worth £15bn if it floated on the stock market, yielding windfall shares worth up to £6,000 for the society's 2.5 million policyholders.

Supporters of Mr Woollard's stance say that they believe that Standard Life's board has already decided that it wants to float the business but would prefer to do so at a time of its own choosing rather than have the decision forced on it by a troublesome outsider.

Mr Woollard has sought to ensure that the issue of demutualisation takes centre-stage at the insurer's annual policyholders meeting to be held in Edinburgh tomorrow by commissioning a poll of policyholders from NOP.

The poll claimed that nearly 90 per cent of the 500 with-profits policyholders surveyed wanted the opportunity to vote for conversion. However, Standard Life has dismissed the results as "worthless". A spokesman said yesterday that Standard Life had had complaints from policyholders about the way the poll was carried out. He questioned the information that those polled had been given "about what they could expect in terms of windfall shares".

Mr Woollard intends to table a resolution requisitioning a special meeting to debate demutualisation ahead of the AGM. An earlier resolution tabled by Mr Woollard was thrown out by Standard Life in February on a technicality. Under the society's rules, Standard Life has 21 days to convene a meeting.

Standard Life has sought without success to establish that Mr Woollard is acting as a front for Danny Hill, his former employer. Mr Woollard helped Mr Hill, a wealthy Australian businessman, make a substantial windfall out of the demutualisation of AMP, the Australian life insurer. But Mr Woollard, who stands to make £150,000 if Standard Life does convert to a plc, says he is acting independently .

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