OPINION: 'Shrink to survive' for Friends Provident

It is not often that you see a company implode as spectacularly as Friends Provident, the UK life assurer.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

A year ago as the leadership of the popular chief executive Keith Satchell drew to a close, it presented an image of a business where a high-earning wealth management operation was being successfully grafted on to its traditional conventional life and pensions engine.

It was smaller than the big names in the market but was giving them a run for its money with a string of businesses they widely envied.

But today it is in full retreat. The wealth management business - the jewel in the Satchell crown - is on the block. The controlling holding in the separately listed fund management business F & C is up for sale. Even the core pensions and protections business to which it is retreating will make about a fifth of its UK workforce redundant. And the company is going through this wrenching change without a proper chief executive. It has fired one and is waiting while the replacement serves out his gardening leave.

Passing this off as business as usual was always going to be a challenge and it is to the credit of chairman Adrian Montagu that he has not tried.

Instead he has come clean as to what went wrong. Firstly, the company's expansion consumed vast amounts of capital and required regular additions to borrowing. With the credit crunch the capital became hard to acquire.

Secondly, it was betting the ranch on the untested thesis that it would be able to develop its technology to distribute wealth products to UK-based IFAs.

Thirdly, it became embroiled in a fight with Hugh Osmond of Pearl for control of a third company called Resolution.

Now the strategy is 'shrink to survive' and the PR challenge is to persuade that what is shrunk will survive. Prosperity and growth are what the market likes to hear and they may be a gleam in Montagu's eye but that is not the line to be pushed at the moment. Rather, he wants to convince the outside world that the citadel is sound, that the business will be quietly profitable and the dividend will be covered. The time for fireworks has passed.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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