Despite Co-operative Insurance Society general marketing manager Martin Clarke claiming he could just as easily be doing the marketing for a different company, you get the feeling that beneath the surface lies a strong commitment to the Co-op's ethical stance.
He says the reasons for getting a job with CIS needs a 25-year-old answer. After graduated with a degree in maths from Cambridge, Clarke had little appreciation of the difference between the various insurance companies when he searched for his first job as a trainee actuary.
But for someone born in Urmston, brought up in what he refers to as the less salubrious parts of Salford and having gone to school in Bolton, to work for Manchester-based CIS was like coming home. He has been with the CIS ever since, migrating from actuarial science to marketing.
Clarke says the fact that he is the son of an Anglican clergyman had nothing to do with his working at CIS. But his characterisation of CIS is strongly informed by ethical criteria. “It is a company that has values but first and foremost it is effective as a business. But we will not sacrifice principles for profit,” he says.
Clarke says CIS takes a lot of trouble to design its products to be inclusive and trumpets its brand-wide SRI policy and the lead taken on genetic testing.
He sees no conflict between the left-leaning bent of CIS and private sector provision. He thinks CIS's products such as its savings products and pensions mirror developments in healthcare, childcare and social housing in a partnership between public and private sectors.
Indeed, Clarke asks, what could be more Blairite than the CIS? “Co-ops have always been situated at the third way. We sit between social security and the big bad world of finance.”
One could see contradictions elsewhere. Clarke's Mercedes S class must cut a dash in distinctively working-class Rochdale (coincidentally the birthplace of the Co-operative movement) where he lives with his wife and three children. When not working, Clarke says he spends most of his time ferrying his children around but relaxes by watching “any sport with a ball in it”.
He believes his colleagues would describe him as a hard worker with vision.
CIS wants to go from being a nice player to a niche player in the IFA market. It is already targeting fee-based employee benefit consultants with its corporate pensions. Clarke readily accepts that CIS will not be able to lock horns, in the short term at least, with the likes of Norwich Union and Standard Life in a depolarised intermediary market. However, he believes it has spotted a gap in the IFA market which it would like to fill – a socially responsible with-profits offering to sit alongside the other specialist ethical investments.
W hereas many other providers are quaking in their boots about what Sandler's review could do to with-profits, Clarke thinks CIS will be better prepared than most for his recommendations. He says the Co-op's with-profits stakeholder already operates as a ringfenced, smoothed managed fund and its structure makes with-profits less complicated.
Nevertheless, Clarke thinks Sandler is largely dealing with issues the industry has already dealt with. His message to Sandler in thinking of addressing the savings gap was not to forget that with-profits makes up 40 per cent of the life and pension industry. Clarke does not think with-profits' current name will survive. “The only question remaining will be what to call with-profits.”
Like many others, he thinks the banks will be the prime beneficiaries of depolarisation. Co-operative Bank and CIS have already announced what will in effect be a merger, consolidating under a single board.
He says depolarisation will also benefit CIS's salesforce, in that it will enable gap-filling, adding that it is already in the vanguard of selling general insurance alongside savings products.
But it is the “greener half” of CP121 which proposes generic or pared down advice that especially appeals to CIS, which is unusual in still having a big home-service salesforce of 3,000.
Clarke asks: “Why should the salesforces need to know about inheritance tax, for instance, when it is something they are unlikely to encounter in their day-to-day work?”
CIS is very keen to pilot generic, simplified advice and has had discussion with the Government and regulator. In its submission to the FSA, it put the case for simplified “safe” commoditised products that could be provided “off the peg” rather than require bespoke advice. But to pilot the two-tiered approach properly, the generic adviser will have to be able sell regulated products and this will require an FSA waiver, says Clarke.
CIS has a fundamental commitment to the least wealthy end of the market. It is a part of the market that has been slowly abandoned but Clarke says: “If this market is deserted, we will be the last people there to switch the lights off.”
Lives: Rochdale. Married with three children
Born: March17, 1956 Urmston, Manchester
Education and qualifications: Read maths at Jesus College, Cambridge, Fellow of Institute of Actuaries
Career to date: Started as actuarial trainee at CIS, progressing to current position as marketing general manager
Career ambition: Being recognised as making a difference and changing things for the better
Life ambition: “As my mother said, always to do my best”
Likes: Openness and honesty
Peers say: “Fairly level-headed, with some good ideas. He is quite reserved.”
Car: Mercedes S Class