Otto Thoresen's career has come full circle. A marketing man at heart, Thoresen started his career in 1978 at Scottish Equitable as a marketing manager. He left only to return in 1994 and will now take the role of chief executive on David Henderson's retirement in March 2005.
He had serious reservations about returning. “I asked to see the chairman of Aegon UK before agreeing to come back and, surprisingly, he agreed. I found the message of decentralisation wasn't spin, it was simply the reality, so I accepted the position.”
Thoresen says he brought the experience of his career at Abbey Life along with him to Aegon, which he used to help the business develop. He says at Abbey he was shocked about the tight regimen, learning more about financial discipline and the bottom line in six months than he could have learnt in all his career at Aegon. At Royal London, he saw the benefit of the business focused on the life and pension sector with a clarity and emphasis on long-term savings. All these lessons were brought to Scottish Equitable on his return.
There was one thread running though his various roles – marketing. “The secret of distribution is the quality of the relationship between the adviser and the consumer so the essence of the marketing role never really changed, no matter where I was.”
Thoresen has been described as the link between the Dutch part of Aegon and Scottish Equitable in the UK. He is no stranger to bridging the divide between the UK and Continental Europe, having as he does a foot in each camp – but don't be misled by the Norwegian name and the Scandinavian exterior, Thoresen is a Scot through and through but he has a keen eye for the international. After his transfer to the Isle of Man while working with Royal Life International, he says he gained an international perspective of the financial sector because of the worldwide high-net investments he was working with which allowed him to learn about the international elements of Aegon at a much faster pace, he says.
He has found that Aegon encourages shared understanding among its international team because, he says, the company fosters an atmosphere of openness. Speaking with advisers in the US and also in Holland has, he says, helped the UK team to put together a concrete business plan. In the US, he explains, there has been open-architecture for a long time and equity management was part of the financial landscape in the US well before the UK.
Similarly, the UK group has helped, for example, with the product formations in Hungary. He says the pension funds in Hungary were created around the UK model. Aegon UK has also been helping the Hungarian side with servicing and regulation issues and administration. “I am very lucky to be able to get into the international side of Aegon. By studying our international teams, especially in the US, we have been able to be really forward-thinking with our UK intermediaries.”
Thoresen is no stranger to challenges. Aside from getting his golf handicap down to single figures to 9.3, something he is “very proud of”, the biggest hurdle he currently sees at Aegon UK is the effects of depolarisation. “We have analysts, advisers, reps in the field all trying to understand the effect this is going to have on the market.” He is disappointed that so far there has been nothing conclusive. He asks: “What is the driver behind multi-tying? What would spur an adviser to give up whole-of-market status? Where is the value? Where is the benefit?” He is still looking for answers and is searching for clarity on the key issues.
As a result of his new role and the key questions on depolarisation, Thoresen says he wants to get out into the field and ask IFAs about their business, which was something that he was unable to do a lot of in his role as finance director. He says: “I prefer to be out there and feel the level of confidence and the concerns, the certainty and uncertainty. It is time we worked out where we stand.”
Positive Solutions and newly formed Origen, the two IFA companies acquired by Aegon have already voiced their concerns over the multi-tie landscape. Positive Solutions chief executive David Harrison went as far to describe some advisers at rival multi-tying companies as “lions led by donkeys”.
Thoresen says: “I admire their positive attitude on their independence. They really believe it is the right thing to do and believe it passionately. David and Gareth Marr and their executive team have a clarity of thinking on the issues.”
He continues his positive thinking when discussing the future of Aegon and his position at the helm. He admits that on the asset management side of things, equity and balanced funds have been disappointing which he puts down to an over-complex system of investment management with decisions taking too long to filter down to the portfolios. “We need an edge to outperform. We are working on this.”
The fixed-income business has been a big success for Aegon, says Thoresen, due to the international relationships that Aegon has forged. “The combination of US dollar expertise, European and UK expertise has been crucial and will be developed even further. The international relationships we have are probably our very best kept secret.”
Similarly with pensions, Thoresen is hoping for Aegon to take a less “inward approach” and take a more in depth look at the competitor markets to develop this area.
With the improvements he hopes to see implemented in the UK business, the chief executive in waiting sees a rosy future for the UK arm of the Dutch giant but he wants to make clear what the business stands for: “People need to understand what our focus is. We are not as clearly defined in the market as we should be. I suppose I am going to go back to my marketing philosophy.”
Born: April 28, 1956
Lives: North Berwick, East Lothian, Scotland
Educated: Schooled in Scotland; 1974 University of Aberdeen, BSc Maths& Statistics Career: 1978: marketing manager, Scottish Equitable; 1984, general manager for life business, Royal Life and continued with a variety of roles including managing director of Royal Life International on the Isle of Man, 1990: corporate development manager, Abbey Life, 1994: director of international business, Scottish Equitable, 1991: corporate development director, 1999: group development director; 2001: finance director, Aegon UK, 2004: appointed chief executive of Aegon UK following the retirement of David Henderson in March 2005 Career ambition:”To help Aegon achieve all it can to reach its full potential.”
Life ambition:”To find balance and peace of mind.”
Heroes: “My father and David Henderson.”
What would you be if you weren't in financial services?: “A golfer if it wasn't such a ridiculous way to earn a living; or politics.”
Likes: Golf, cars, people with determination
Drives: Aston Martin DB7 and VW CorradoVR6