It was also his father who cut out a newspaper advert for an actuarial trainee job at Standard Life in Dublin, setting the course of O’Dwyer’s career in financial services. When he took up the job at the insurer in the late 1980s, unemployment was at around 20 per cent in Ireland and the manufacturing industry had been severely hit, making financial services an attractive career option.
O’Dwyer says: “Financial services, particularly long-term investments, was not doing too badly, partly as a result of the growth of mortgage endowments which were a big deal in Ireland then.”
He joined the insurer straight from school, common for training actuaries at the time. But Standard Life did not have an actuarial department in Dublin when he joined, so he completed his studies through distance learning, sending work back to London to be marked and meanwhile pursuing a sales role.
He moved to Edinburgh to finish his training and then back to Dublin as finance director of the Irish operation before taking up a marketing role.
In total, O’Dwyer spent 19 years with the company and he certainly picked his time to leave the relative safety of a firm he knew so well when he joined HBOS in January 2008 to head products and marketing across its Halifax, Bank of Scotland and Clerical Medical brands.
In something of an understatement, he says it proved “a memorable year”. Despite the bank having to be rescued from the brink of collapse by Lloyds TSB last autumn, O’Dwyer says there were many positives about the business.
“I was working for a part of the business that was performing quite well. The problems that HBOS ran into were in the commercial side of the bank but it did have a good business and good people.”
When Prudential approached him to run its UK life and pension business after the Lloyds takeover of HBOS was announced, O’Dwyer says he did not have to think twice, having admire the firm as a competitor.
Being based at Prudential’s office at Craigforth near Stirling has allowed O’Dwyer’s family to stay in Edinburgh. He frequently travels back and forth to London and although the arrangement offers a good quality of life for his family, he says he does not have much time for leisure.
O’Dwyer has joined Prudential at a time when the firm is seeking to grow its IFA distribution and has taken on additional account managers. He disagrees with Aviva’s prediction that after the retail distribution review, 50 per cent of IFAs will have left the sector.
“What Aviva said is probably an extreme view. I am much more in the camp that believes IFAs are survivors.”
He says that in the run-up to commission disclosure in 1995 there were similarly dire predictions about how many IFAs would leave the market but he says: “It did not happen because IFAs adapt to new environments.”
Currently, Prudential only has a direct salesforce of around 25, all focused on selling its lifetime mortgage and O’Dwyer says there are no plans to extend this.
“We are in the lucky position that we have a large bank of customers that deal with us direct because they came to us direct – it was the old ‘man from the Pru’ business. The book that came to us via IFAs we regard as being an IFA-serviced business. We do not have any plans to market to those customers.”
He says that when a customer tells the firm they no longer have an IFA, Prudential will refer them to another IFA rather than deal with them directly as he argues it does not have the capacity to offer direct advice.
But he adds: “It is a different set of circumstances where you initiate the conversation with the customer and we do not have any plans to do that – we won’t do that.”
Prudential has also ruled out another popular life office play for IFA business – the insurer-owned platform. He argues that IFAs are likely to take ownership of this space with multi-provider wraps that will leapfrog the current generation of platforms, making them look like “Commodore 64s”. He warns that the regulator is unlikely to look kindly on single-provider platforms in the future.
One area where O’Dwyer is keen to grow is single-tie annuity deals with other life companies. Prudential has existing arrangements with Zurich and Scottish Life but would like to do more in this area. He does not believe that it poses problems from a treating customers fairly perspective.
“These deals are put in place because Prudential can offer a better deal for the consumer than the life company itself. For a lot of this business, there is no market. For very small maturity sums of the likes of £10,000, the reality is that nobody will offer a rate. There is a balance to be struck between getting a good deal for customers and getting the absolute theoretical best deal for every customer.”
On the subject of personal accounts, O’Dwyer has concerns about the short-term potential for levelling down by employers to the bare minimum contributions but he says: “In the long term, they will be good for the industry because having more people with assets invested will obviously be good for advisers and providers”.
He sees that with more and more final-salary schemes being consigned to history, IFAs and providers have a crucial role to play in helping retirees manage a fixed pot of money to ensure it lasts their lifetime.
And with a career planning other people’s retirements, how would O’Dwyer like to spend his own? “Well, I have a romantic notion that I will write a book. I have started a couple of times with ideas but I have never had enough time, so I am kicking it into the long grass until I retire.”
Born: Galway, 1971
Lives: East Lothian with his wife and three children
Education: Portumna College, County Galway
Career: January 2009-present: managing director of retail life and pensions, Prudential UK; January 2008-09: products and marketing director, HBOS Financial Services, responsible for Halifax, Bank of Scotland and Clerical Medical brands; 2006-07: managing director for UK marketing, Standard Life; 1988-2006: various other roles from training actuary to finance director of Irish business, Standard Life.
Likes: Golf, rugby and people who don’t take themselves too seriously
Dislikes: Surprises, losing and text message abbreviations
Drives: BMW 730D
Book: Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
Film: Driving Miss Daisy
Album: Thriller by Michael Jackson
Career ambition: Help shape the market with products that allow a generation of people manage the risks they face in retirement
Life ambition: To raise my kids to be good people.
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Writing novels