With the chinking of glasses and chatter of a French Alpine cafe in the background of our telephone conversation, it is hard to picture the man who has scaled the face of selling the most unsellable life office in the UK, Equitable Life.
For the past seven months, law firm Lovells partner and head of its corporate insurance team John Young has not seen much of the light of day, working for Equitable on its sale after the Law Lords' ruling.
Now the deal with Halifax has been done, he is still climbing mountains but this time for pleasure, taking some time off for his favourite hobby, mountaineering, after clinching the deal that thousands of people across the country have been waiting for.
Young was actually at the same Alpine village with his wife, also a lawyer, when Equitable lost its House of Lords appeal and put itself up for sale last July.
Speaking by phone from the Alps, he says: “Like everyone, we had been following the Equitable case all the way through. I picked up a voicemail message while I was out here from my partner at Lovells giving me the news. The next message said we had been asked to act for it in its demutualisation process.”
Equitable certainly meant business by going to Young. A Glaswegian by birth, he has been a partner in City law firm Lovells since 1987 and has specialised in corporate insurance for most of his career.
This is the man who hewed out deals between AMP and NPI, Aegon and Guardian Royal Exchange, Britannic and Britannia Life and Prudential and Scottish Amicable.
Although used to tough challenges – he spends his winter breaks in the Scottish Highlands or the Alps rather than in Barbados like many of his contemporaries – did he not have any trepidation about taking on the case, given Equitable's position over its guaranteed liabilities?
He says: “I was actually delighted when the offer came through. I knew it would be a real challenge and it certainly has been. I have never been so mentally and physically exhausted by a project. It is a great relief to be sitting in this cafe, I can tell you.”
To begin with, he found the case no different from any other demutualisation and sale process he has worked on.A team of life office experts had to be assembled quickly and lots of information assimilated in a short space of time.
He spent August to November dealing with expressions of interest and taking second-round bidders through the Data Room. This was a room he describes as filled floor to ceiling with box files containing all Equitable's com- pany information.
But then crunch time came. The Data Room was an impasse. None of the bidders made it through to the other side and Equitable closed to new business on December 7.
Young says: “Until then, we had been going through a well-worn procedure. It started to go wrong at the end of October when the bidders started to walk away. Nobody wanted to take on the entire business.”
T his came as a sharp shock as Young had watched an avalanche of bidders spend an incredible amount of very expensive time tackling the box files.
“Given the huge amount of interest we had from very big life offices and financial institutions around the world, no one thought Equitable would not find a buyer. A lot of people were pulled up short because several businesses had spent huge amounts of money and time in the process.”
He says this explains why the FSA gave Equitable stakeholder approval only a month before closure. “We had every expectation it would be sold as a going business. If it had not given approval or shut Equitable sooner, it could have been accused of sabotage. It was justified by the number of people circling around the bidding.”
But all the bidders turned back to base camp. Young found himself on an unmapped path, not enjoying the view and trying to take stock of where to go next. “We were in a unique situation where the biggest and best life office had failed to find a buyer. I was in new territory. I needed to think.”
Despite what lay in front of him, Young says he and his team remained surprisingly upbeat throughout early January as more parties came forward for parts of the company.
He says: “Some people were looking at something close to the whole company apart from the in-force business. We sold Permanent Insurance in record time which gave us all a good feeling. People were coming in for everything from the head office to overseas offices.”
So he was nothing short of euphoric when Halifax offered a deal that finally looked like it would lead to settlement.
Working for Clerical Medical in its demutualisation and sale to Halifax came in particularly handy. He says: “I knew people on the other side pretty well. People who were previously my clients were on the other side of the table. Having mutual knowledge and trust speeds up the process.
“The proposition was just a few bits of paper but it was the most attractive we had seen and we went all out to negotiate a deal. A vast amount of work was done in the seven days before the announcement. We had 30 lawyers working on it. I put my heart and soul into it and there was considerable relief all round when the contract was signed.”
His partner at Lovells, Robin Spencer, will be tackling Equitable Life's guaranteed annuity problems.
Having got the summit of what one of the more infamous cases in insurance history, Young is heading off-piste for a few days in the French Alps before starting on his next cases, which must seem all downhill by comparison.