Dark deeds among grey men of life insurance

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The Independent Online
THE SEDATE world of life insurance is an unlikely setting for allegations of industrial espionage. Stories of pushy salesmen are ten a penny, but surely the people who run the insurance companies are dull men in Marks & Spencer suits?

Not any more, it seems. Sun Life, one of Britain's biggest life companies, was revealed yesterday to have undertaken a clandestine intelligence gathering operation against a more successful rival, Equitable Life.

Geoffrey Harrison-Dees, Sun Life's general manager for sales and marketing, admitted yesterday to 'sanctioning' the so-called Equitable Life recruitment exercise. The plan was to drop an agent, Alan Stevenson, normally a Sun Life broker and sales manager, behind enemy lines by encouraging him to apply for a job with the Equitable.

Mr Stevenson was issued with a confidential dossier on Equitable Life. His mission: to find out about the training and back-up that enabled Equitable's 325 salesmen to attract more than pounds 1bn of premiums last year. Sadly, there is no truth in the suggestion that Sun Life planned to plant a permanent mole within its rival.

Although this was a one-off for Sun Life, the same sort of thing is apparently standard practice in the assurance business. 'It's quite common within the industry for people to apply to job ads in order to get information about pay levels and so on,' said Mr Harrison-Dees.

Financial Adviser, the trade newspaper, reported Mr Harrison-Dees as being 'unclear on the law as regards industrial espionage'. But yesterday he said he was quite satisfied Sun Life would not be doing Equitable any damage.

John Reeve, Mr Harrison-Dees's boss, regards the exercise as 'unfortunate'.

Mr Harrison-Dees said: 'It's not something that he would have been enthusiastic about. He would prefer it not to happen again. But there's no question of heads rolling or anything of that sort. It's not an issue of that magnitude.'

Equitable, meanwhile, was taking a relaxed attitude to the affair, basking in the warmth of Sun's unusual compliment. Roy Ranson, Equitable's managing director, said: 'We would never do that kind of thing. It's a question of standards of behaviour.'