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Mistake of Titanic proportions?

Rising at 5.30am the other morning, the sound of the dawn chorus reminded me that there exists a purity that is not of this world&#39s making. What a contrast to the platitudes of Standard Life managing director (sales) Nathan Parnaby in the edition of April 15 regarding the demutualisation of what I so recently considered to be one of the stalwarts of the UK financial services industry.

Only very recently, we were being repeatedly informed that Standard&#39s mutual status was part of our heritage and was in the interest of members. The directors would do all they could to resist the short-term selfish interest of carpetbaggers. How quickly things change.

When I joined Sun Life of Canada in 1990, I soon formed the opinion that here was a company where I would remain until retirement in 2008.

Around 1997, however, we were told that an end to the company&#39s mutual status was in the interest of policyholders and permission to demutualise was sought from the Canadian government.

Then came the platitudes. Yes, the same reasons for demutualisation given by Nathan Parnaby were presented to Sun Life of Canada members and employees: “…to grow a successful and diversified business”, “…to strengthen our capital position”, “…to reduce costs”, “…a new market strategy”, “…exciting initiative”, “…greater use of technology”, “…restructured operations”. It all sounded so plausible. And all – well, nearly all – swallowed the pill and voted with our heads, not our hearts.

The reality? Within less than a year, Sun Life of Canada UK was closed to new business, over 2,000 proud employees were sacked and then the process of selling off the good parts of the business commenced.

Suspicious? Ultra-cautious? Lack of confidence? Of course. I have been there before, have seen the failure of what was presented as good advice and experienced the tears, so do not expect me to be rousingly optimistic about the future for Standard Life.

When in 2000 I saw that, within six months of demutualisation, Sun Life of Canada was heading for disaster, I knew the time had come to abandon ship. Four years on, could we be heading for another Titanic disaster? I hope not. (Interestingly, the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912 – that date again).

Over the last four years, I have recommended Standard Life to many of my clients. But now? I think I will wait and see.

David Hamshire Wanborough,Wiltshire


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