Openwork left ‘vulnerable’ as Zurich plots stake sale

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Advice network Openwork has been left “vulnerable” after Zurich confirmed plans to sell-off its remaining 25 per cent stake in the business, experts say.

Openwork is 67.5 per cent owned by member firms and 7.5 per cent by an Openwork employees trust, with the remainder held by Zurich, and now set to be divested to member firms over four years.

Money Marketing first revealed the insurer was planning an exit back in July, when Zurich brought in banking advice firm Evercore to review the holding.

But industry experts say without Zurich’s backing Openwork could struggle.

While the firm declared profits of £4.2m for 2014, and £183,000 and £2m in the previous two years, between 2009 and 2011 Openwork lost almost £21m.

Threesixty managing director Phil Young says: “Openwork is going to be a lot less secure than they were beforehand with Zurich’s support. The reputational association they had with Openwork meant the insurer was always going to be willing to lend a hand.

“If you look at the financial results over the years, there’s some big losses in there. So this could be ‘squeaky bum time’.”

Tenet group brands director and managing director of TenetConnect and TenetSelect Mike O’Brien adds: “You are always going to be more vulnerable as a standalone business without a parent who can step in and put more money behind you.

“So by definition they are more vulnerable, but that said, they now seem to be declaring profits, so maybe their problems are behind them.”

A Zurich spokesman says the move to divest was taken, in part, because of the firm’s recently improved performance.

He says: “It has always been Zurich’s intention to divest our shareholding in Openwork when the time is right, and this announcement reflects the huge strides the network has made in recent years to become and remain profitable.

“The bonds between the two businesses remain very strong, and while we will by 2020 no longer be a shareholder as a result of this agreement, we will continue to provide our market-leading platform and protection propositions to Openwork’s advisers and their clients.”

Openwork declined to comment.