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Obituary of Alexander Scott Bell by former Standard Chief Executive Jim Stretton

Alexander Scott Bell, who died on Thursday aged 65, was one of the most significant business leaders in Scotland of the last century and the very early part of this. As Managing Director of the Standard Life Assurance Company he led the giant Scottish based mutual to unprecedented successes in the highly competitive world of the life assurance industry.

Scott Bell was born in Falkirk in 1941. He was educated with distinction at Daniel Stewarts (Stewart Melvilles) in Edinburgh before joining the Standard Life Assurance Company in 1958 as a trainee actuary. It was the start of a 44 year period of dedication as a ‘Standard Lifer’ serving the company at all levels with total commitment up to his retirement as Group Managing Director in 2002. His retirement from Standard Life was however not the last influence he was to have on the financial services community in Scotland – he would later that year become a board member of Dunfermline Building Society and be a key part of another of Scotland’s business success stories of recent times.

But to define Scott Bell as a ‘Standard Lifer’ is severely to understate the reach he was to exert, sometimes controversially, throughout the UK financial community. His influence was profound. He would be described as formidable, hard, direct and challenging by many, but far more commonly as strong, intellectual, principled and honourable. Those close to him also knew him to be very kind and totally loyal.

Scott qualified as an actuary in 1966. He held a variety of positions within the company, mainly in Edinburgh but also in Canada and London where he was Regional Manager. On his return to Edinburgh in 1974 he moved into Standard Life’s investment management division which he led from 1979. In this role he was responsible for continuing Standard Life’s outstanding record of extremely competitive investment returns for its customers. On succeeding George Gwilt as Managing Director of Standard Life he devoted a great deal of time to establishing corporate objectives and he inspired the ambition always to aim for excellence. Nothing else was acceptable during his tenure. His mission for the Company was ‘the provision of with-profits contracts on which the ultimate returns will be consistently greater than those available on comparable policies of other life offices and to do so in the maximum volume consequently possible without detriment to the maintenance of an appropriate level of financial strength’.

Standard Life, under Bell’s leadership, was determined to meet all three objectives embodied in this mission statement and, by so doing, not to expose itself to the risk of inadequate capital that was plaguing many well known life companies at the time. Considerable emphasis was therefore given to the importance of maintaining the company’s financial strength whilst growing the business and maintaining returns to its customers. At the end of the twentieth century it was a badge of honour, and the envy of many in the industry, that Standard Life had the highest possible assessments of its financial strength (‘Triple A’) from the world renowned ratings agencies Moodys and Standard & Poors.

Bell led a dramatic expansion of Standard Life’s business, taking it outside its traditional areas of the UK, Canada and Ireland to Spain, Germany, Hong Kong, India and China. He launched the separate companies Standard Life Investments, Standard Life Healthcare and formed Standard Life Bank. He recognized early that Standard Life had to change whilst it was ahead and that a continuing reliance on the UK’s booming life assurance market (which still presented many opportunities) would ultimately be limiting for the Group. He also had an acute understanding that customer service could set Standard Life apart from its competitors and he invested heavily in the Company’s IT infrastructure and in its staff to make the Company easy for its customers to deal with, or putting it as he would have done, to be better than anyone else in the industry. It is a point of note and continuing pride within the company that Standard Life Companies have received the elite independent ‘5 star’ recognition for its customer service throughout the 1990s to date.

In his single-minded aim always to do the right things in the interests of Standard Life’s customers, Bell sometimes had to face up to controversy. In 1996 the Standard Life Board, after a strategic review of the Company’s investment risks, decided to reduce its stake in the Bank of Scotland acquired in 1985 and by the time of the decision worth more than £900 million, to a more prudent level. Standard Life’s share sale quickly sparked a raging debate on the role of major Scottish companies and whether or not the defense of the Scottish business community should influence an individual company’s decisions. Scott was never in any doubt – his role was to act in the interests of Standard Life’s customers and owners. He resigned as a director of the Bank and faced up to the criticism.

But the year 2000 was perhaps the most dramatic year in Bell’s tenure at Standard Life. A resolution proposing the demutualization of Standard Life was received and had to be put to a General Meeting. Scott and the whole Board were convinced that this was not at that time in the interests of the Company’s owners (who were of course its customers) and were determined to argue the case for remaining mutual as strongly as possible. The ensuing campaign showed clearly the loyalty that Scott inspired in his staff. Most of them were involved directly or indirectly in presenting the Company’s case and the voluntary commitment and effort they showed was amazing. Despite the advocates of demutualisation being able to promise their supporters substantial cash payments, the Company’s view prevailed at the General Meeting and the Company remained mutual.

Scott never saw this as a personal victory nor did he enjoy the media spotlight which these events cast upon him. He believed in doing the right things and trusted, despite much evidence to the contrary, that the media would understand the logic he presented.

Scott Bell was a loyal family man. He is survived by his wife Nicky and his two sons Scott and David and his daughter Victoria. He was a devoted and much loved grandfather to 10 grandchildren. He remained attached to his home town of Falkirk, always continuing to support its football team. But he also had an affection for the town of Elie spending summers there with his family the whole of his life.

In Elie he would practice his golf, a game he loved passionately. He was a keen member of the Royal and Ancient, Muirfield, Bruntsfield and Elie Golf Clubs. He led Standard Life to support the fledgling ‘Loch Lomond Invitational’ throughout its early existence. The support was gratefully received and set the competition in motion – now as the Scottish Open, one of the UK’s most prestigious golf tournaments attracting the worlds leading players.

Scott Bell’s service was recognized by the awards of CBE in 2000 and an honorary degree in literature from Heriot Watt University in 1997. From 1994 he was the Honorary Canadian Consul in Scotland.

When Scott Bell took over leadership of Standard Life in 1988 its funds under management were £15 billion. When he left his post in 1992 it controlled £83 billion and was the largest mutual life assurer in Europe. It now remains one of the biggest brand names in UK financial services managing over £145 billion originating from 146 different countries. Many people in many places have good reason to be grateful for Scott’s work.


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