Belfast Telegraph

Simon Evans: Strong bosses are the industry's best insurance policy

Few set out to build a career in insurance. Maybe that explains the dearth of good quality management within the sector at present.

Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of Prudential, has hardly covered himself in glory of late. He's set to hang on to the top job, for now at least, despite his bungled attempt to buy AIG's Asian business for $35.5bn.

His chairman, Harvey McGrath, looks likely to be the fall guy as investors agitate for his removal. Other non-executives on the Pru board, which is horribly bereft of talent – and has been for some time – should be looking over their shoulders too.

As John Kay, who writes on breaking up the banks this week, [see page 79] wrote earlier this month, non-execs need to get past the cult of heroic chief executive and provide a proper foil for their ambitions – Pru's board didn't and a price must be paid.

Looking at the imbroglio at Prudential from his offices in the shadows of the Gherkin in the City, Andrew Moss, chief executive of Aviva, which tried to buy Prudential in 2006, has probably raised a smile or two at the goings-on. But he too should be cautious.

The rebellious investors behind the downfall of Pru's AIA deal, are agitating for his removal, despite an upturn in the insurer's share price.

During the course of the Prudential saga many investors were keen to impart their views to me on Mr Moss, who so infuriated them when he cut the company's dividend by a third last year, after promising not to.

When he graduated from the finance director role at Aviva back in 2007, Mr Moss came in with a fanfare, trumpeting his "One Aviva, twice the value" slogan – a plan to integrate the disparate parts of the insurance giant and double its earnings.

Nearly three years after Mr Moss took the job, his plan hasn't worked. Aviva's share price is about the same as it was when Moss took over.

And those investors who marked Mr Moss's card following the divvy mess are in the mood for mischief.

Mr Moss hasn't helped himself of late by adopting a profile lower than many chief executives typically do. He has left many investor and City presentations to Mark Hodges, who runs Aviva's UK business. Where was Mr Moss at the recent Goldman Sachs conference in Madrid?

Sources close to Mr Moss tell me that he is simply sharing out duties and will speak at other big financial institution conferences later in the year. But many investors I'm speaking with aren't buying the no-show.

The problem that investors have with insurance, and Aviva in particular, is that they simply don't understand how the company makes its money. It's complex and opaque.

Many don't understand Mr Moss's claim that Europe is the place to be either. Although Prudential's execution of the AIA deal was flawed, few can argue with its strategic rationale. In contrast one would be hard pressed to make the same case for Europe.

Of course it's not all doom and gloom, as Aviva's PR man tells me. The group was recently rated as a conviction buy by Goldman Sachs. But perhaps it's not that simple. Aviva is holding an investor conference on 2 July when shareholders will get the chance to grill Mr Moss on all of the above. That is if he turns up.

Belfast Telegraph