Alexander Scott Bell, actuary and businessman: born Falkirk, Stirlingshire 4 December 1941; Assistant Actuary for Canada, Standard Life Assurance Company 1967-72, Deputy Actuary 1972-74, South Region Manager 1974-79, Assistant General Manager (Finance) 1979-85, General Manager (Finance) 1985-88, Group Managing Director 1988-2002; Director, Bank of Scotland 1988-96; CBE 2000; married 1965 Nicky Simpson (two sons, one daughter); died Edinburgh 23 August 2007.
Scott Bell was one of the significant individuals – they can be numbered on the fingers of two hands – who in the last 20 years have made a critically important contribution to Edinburgh's burgeoning reputation as a world financial centre. In 1988, when he took over the leadership of Standard Life Assurance Company, the funds, under management, were some £15bn. At a decade and a half later, when Bell retired, Standard Life controlled £83bn. He was both an extremely able actuary, laconic with words, impatient with gobbledegook – and an inspirational team leader.
Bell was born in 1941 in Falkirk, Stirlingshire, the son of the head physician of the local hospital. As a schoolboy, he travelled by train each day into Edinburgh to attend Daniel Stewart's College, where the headmaster, Dr George Robbie, was a stickler for academic standards. The school gave Bell a first-class reference to their friends in Standard Life, and for the next 44 years Bell was to rise through the ranks of the company.
He qualified as an actuary in 1960 and was later assigned to the Canadian business as an assistant actuary in 1967 and deputy actuary in 1972. Though he never lived in Canada, nothing delighted him more in later life than being asked by the Canadian Prime Minister to be their Honorary Consul in Edinburgh between 1994 and 2004.
In 1974 Bell was promoted as South Region manager, based in London. Five years later he was back in Edinburgh as Assistant General Manager (Finance), rising to become General Manager of Finance from 1985 to 1988, the year in which he was also appointed a director of the Bank of Scotland. Bell was given the top job as Group Managing Director in 1988, leading the company for 14 years. During this time he led a dramatic expansion of Standard Life's business, taking it to Spain, Germany, Hong Kong, India and China.
The issue for which he will ever be remembered above all was demutualisation. His close friend and much-valued colleague Jim Stretton, chief executive for UK Operations of Standard Life from 1994 to 2001, and a director of the Bank of England 1998-2003, told me: "The year 2000 was the most dramatic time. A resolution proposing the demutualisation of Standard Life was received, and had to be put to a vote at a General Meeting. Scott and the whole board were concerned that it was not at that time in the interests of the company's owners, who after all were its customers, and was determined to argue the case for remaining mutual. The ensuing campaign showed the loyalty of his staff and the extent to which he inspired them."
The campaign was successful. The policyholders voted by 54 to 46 per cent to stay mutual. Considering the odds, involving human greed, with which Bell had to contend, it was a very remarkable result. He spent nearly half a year and £10m of the company's money fighting desperately to counter an aggressive attack led by an Australian called Fred Woollard whose object was to have Standard Life floated on the London Stock Exchange. Bell had to face the simple situation that if Woollard persuaded the policyholders to back him, the firm would have to pay what for some policyholders would have been a once-in-a-lifetime, £6,000 cash windfall – far above what they actually got when Standard Life was finally floated in 2006.
After Bell retired in 2002, the company faced a turbulent period. When his successor Iain Lumsden was sacked over policy issues in 2004, I phoned Bell, since I had a large number of constituents who earned their bread-and-butter by working at Standard Life in Edinburgh. I said: "Scott, what on earth is going on? There are a lot of people in West Lothian who are jolly worried. " His reply perhaps encapsulated what a strictly honourable man he was: "I can't pretend that I'm other than dismayed, but I have vowed not to comment as it could be to the detriment of Standard Life to whose service I have given my life."
He remained silent about the lowering of Standard Life's long-prized " Triple A" credit rating by Moody's Investors Service for the first time; the letter from the Financial Services Authority deeply concerned about Standard Life's solvency rules; the five bonus cuts in the year 2000; and the highly contentious sale of 7.5 billion shares over a period of six weeks to help keep confidence in Standard Life's balance sheet.
In March 2004 I asked him for his reaction as a friend to the decision to float on the Stock Exchange. Gently he said to me: "Tam, let me pass on that". Whatever his feeling he was determined not to make trouble.
From the perspective of 2007 we have to agree with Sir Brian Stewart, former chairman of Standard Life, who on hearing of Bell's death said: "Scott was a great guy. He did a tremendous job at Standard Life, creating what is today a first-class business."
Scott Bell was one of my close contacts in the whole argument for resisting the creation of a Scottish Assembly and Scottish Parliament. I think he was chiefly motivated by the fact that nine-tenths of his business came from England. But he was also concerned about the practicalities.
I shall never forget going to lunch with Scott Bell – as usual in the canteen which was open to all employees of whatever level – and asking him about the costs of his new building in the Lothian Road. "A hundred million," he said. He was the last man to be taken for a ride by contractors, and from that moment I opined publicly that the Scottish Parliament would cost not less than £200m and not Donald Dewar's " not a penny more than £40m".
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