After university, Gary Withers went travelling, walking around volcanoes, which has stood him in good stead since taking over as Norwich Union Life chief executive in some of the most explosive times ever seen by the industry.
He became chief executive last year and believes the insurance industry has “turned the corner”.
He says: “I think we needed to have a cooling-off period. You cannot run forward at 20 per cent a year forever. It defies the real world.” Withers says a lot of people have been left wondering how the financial markets work and questioning who is in charge. “Nobody is in charge and it is rather frightening that the whole thing can spiral off in this somewhat illogical direction.”
He started his professional life as an engineer, working first for Michelin and then for Shell. He discovered the world of financial markets after being picked to work in Shell's treasury function because he knew how to use spreadsheets.
From there, he headed to European business school Insead where he took an MBA, intending to move into the financial markets but recession meant he could not get the job he wanted and he moved towards financial management. He soon realised that the same skills he used as an engineer were applicable to financial markets.
Withers believes NU is a big player at a time when that matters and credits being part of an international company such as Aviva as playing a vital role in helping it weather the storm. He is surprised that more insurers have not taken the consolidation through merger route taken by NU.
“We are talking about a market leader which has got perhaps 12 per cent of the market. I think that is very unusual in 2003 in a large developed financial services marketplace. I do not think that is particularly healthy actually. It would be better for the industry if we had a small number of players who had stronger market shares.”
Withers is keen to see the industry given more flexibility on products. “Pension simplification, for example. It is great when people work out a new way, an arguably better way, of representing people's pensions and giving them better information. But if we have got to apply that to pensions applied 30 years ago, the costs involved in that are potentially very large for the benefit it accrues.
We have got to look at the ability to move the products from one contractual basis to a more modern basis.”
He gives Norwich Union's pre-1988 retirement annuity contracts as an example and contrasts it with the flexibility of unit trusts. “How many unit trusts listed in 1980 could you buy today? I suspect the answer is very few.”
Withers hopes a more effective relationship can be forged with the Government and regulator, particularly if two or three bigger players emerge in the market. “Then we can have some more constructive dialogues. There has been a really quite confrontational and dismissive attitude of the industry that is not helpful and I do not think that is the right way to go about reform. If people got inside it from a regulatory and Governmental point of view, they would find that, in most companies, there would not be a huge disagreement between what they are trying to do and what companies are trying to do.”
He is steadfast in NU's opposition to the Government's proposed 1 per cent price cap, saying he doubts that the City would be willing to back anyone wanting to go into the Sandler suite of products in a big way if the Government was to implement it. “There has been some silly conversations and some silly ideas and you have got to worry that we have ended up with so much political capital in the 1 per cent that people feel they cannot back down. If that happens, then we are in for a pretty silly period in this marketplace.”
Silliness is something that Withers does not tolerate, describing himself as someone who likes to ask searching questions and get to the heart of the matter. “I far prefer somebody to say I do not know but it is a good question and I will go and find out rather than waffle at me or try to bullshit me.”
Some of his peers describe Withers as having “a lot of dynamite in there”. A week after finishing his product engineering degree at university he travelled around the world for seven months taking in America, Mexico, Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia.
During his travels, he spent a lot of time walking around volcanoes, the most memorable of which was Mauna Loa in Hawaii which erupts fairly regularly. He and an Australian he was with were alarmed to hear a rumbling in the distance while on the volcano.
“I said to him if it is going to erupt we might as well stay here as we will go in a pool of glorious lava. We are not going to run faster than this thing.” Luckily, it turned out that it was American bombers doing low-flying practice bombing runs.
Last year, while windsurfing off the coast of France, Withers says he was perplexed by a helicopter hovering 50 yards above the sea and wondered who was in trouble. “I got on my board and looked around and then realised they thought it was me. It did create a bit of excitement on the beach.”
Married with two children, Withers tries to live by the rule of work from Monday to Friday and then spending time outdoors with his family on weekends.
He says: “The trick is to keep pushing yourself to limits you can make. I am not a young man in a rush. You could probably take that angle from my career but it is not really true.”
Born: 1962, Malvern, Hereford
Education: Pembroke College 1982-85; Cambridge University Insead MBA 1990.
Career: Michelin Tyre Company 1981-85; student engineering apprentice, Shell International Petroleum 1986-89; operational research analyst, international business consultancy investment manager, group central funds McKinsey & Company 1991-94; associate engagement manager, Mercury Asset Management 1994-97;business manager, UK pension funds business co-ordinator, executive committee, strategic projects acquired by Merrill Lynch Investment Managers 1998-2001; integration manager, Merrill Lynch Mercury, head of strategy, Merrill Lynch Mercury head of distributor funds, Europe managing director, Merrill Lynch Fund Managers director, Mercury selected trust, Luxemburg CGNU 2001; group strategy & development director Norwich Union Life; September 2002; chief executive.
Career ambition: “I have probably achieved my career ambition in the sense that it would have been to run a major company and I'm doing that.”
Life ambition: “I think you want to be able to look back on each stage and say I enjoyed each bit.”
Likes: Being in the open air, Hereford United, England cricket team, good wine, playing sport.
Dislikes: People who don't know what they're talking about. Drivers who drive ridiculously slowly.
Drives: When with the family, a Mercedes 4-wheel drive, when on my own, a Morgan sports car.
Peers say: “Gary is an extra-ordinarily driven individual, restless for success and I can't believe he is making anything other than a tremendously positive contribution.”