It is somewhat surprising to think that Mary Francis has only been director general of the Association of British Insurers since 1999. She has presided over a time of great change and left her mark not only on the financial services industry, but also on the landscape of how consumers buy and are affected by financial products.
But in March next year, Francis' time at the ABI will be at an end. She has decided to step down, with the intention of focusing on her non-executive roles.
Looking back, she says it is hard to pinpoint the highlights of such a great period of change. When pressed, however, she admits recent movements in Government policy on pensions stand among her proudest moments.
She says the pressure the ABI has been putting on the Government over the past years seems to be paying off now. “For a long time we have been lobbying for a more cohesive approach to pensions policy and it is exciting to see this line finally beginning to bear fruit.”
In fact, at an ABI fringe event at the Labour Party conference last week, Francis says new DWP secretary Alan Johnson signalled that the Government was more determined to take a more cohesive view of pensions. Among other things, it recognised for the first time that there were problems with the pensions credit. “We had applied pressure on the Government for quite some time and would like to think this contributed to its change of stance,” she says.
Francis says she has enjoyed working with and against various Government figures, including Alistair Darling and Andrew Smith. “Darling was the person who brought in stakeholder at 1 per cent, so we obviously had our ups and downs with our relationship with him,” she says. “Lobbying the Government to increase this has been somewhat successful, but at 1.5 per cent it is still far from generous.”
She says she had a very good relationship with Andrew Smith, who she thinks did a lot towards tackling the problems with pensions: “But I do think it is now time for a new minister to take this to the next stage.”
Francis will not be actively involved in the search for a replacement director general at the ABI although she will probably get a nod from the board. “I'm happy to stand aside and let the ABI get on with it,” she says. The ABI is currently looking to appoint headhunters to conduct the search for her replacement.
She says she is happy to leave the ABI in the “good hands of a very strong board”, which includes Legal & General's David Prosser, Standard Life's Sandy Crombie and HBOS chief executive James Crosby.
However, her non-executive roles are more than enough to keep her busy. Among other things, she is on the board of Centrica, sits on the Court of the Bank of England and is a member of the Press Complaints Commission and a trustee of the Almeida Theatre, London.
A drama aficionado, she finds being part of the theatre world great fun. Since mixing in theatre circles she has also picked up the odd theatre phrase, such as “doing a Pickford”, which means picking up props from the stage.
The trusteeship has also given Francis the opportunity to meet some charismatic characters such as Michael Attenborough, Almeida artistic director and son of Sir Richard Attenborough and artistic director of the Almeida.
Between 1995 and 1999, Francis worked as deputy private secretary to the Queen. She was invited to become a trustee of the Islington-based theatre after arranging a royal visit as part of a tour of London theatres. She is guarded about what the Queen is like but says the job was very different from anything she had done before. “After being in the civil service for so long, my job at Buckingham Palace was less about policy than about presentation,” she says.
The theatre tour was one highlight; a state visit to Korea was another. “One thing that stood out was that no matter where we were going, you learned an amazing amount of detail about the place or the activities and people. In this regard, Buckingham Palace is very comprehensive.”
Post-ABI, Francis is planning to keep her winters busy with football. She is a long-serving – some might argue long-suffering – Tottenham Hotspur supporter and was excited when she recently met one of her childhood heroes, 1964-1976 Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings. “It brought back the excitement I felt as a child,” she says. “I don't think you ever lose that love of sport or the memory of watching an exciting game.”
Among other activities that will keep Francis busy when her term ends will be her position on the Press Complaints Commission, where the case work always keeps her interested and occasionally amused.
The role is somewhat akin to being a judge or an ombudsman and the cases Francis hears are varied, from footballer kiss and tells to local people complaining their free local paper has disclosed too many personal facts about them. She recalls one case where a review of a Glaswegian curry house called the restaurant the home of the hottest curries in Scotland. One reader complained that the curries he ate at the restaurant were not the hottest curries in Scotland and that the review had been misleading. “We had to admit this was slightly outside our remit and expertise,” she says.
After so many contributions to the financial services landscape, Francis will no doubt be sorely missed. The board of the ABI has a big job ahead, finding a replacement who can live up to the high standard she has set.