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Revolution or has Widows peaked?

Scottish Widows believes it is shaping up as the model life office for the new millennium.

It revealed last week that it is entering into a joint venture with supermarket giant Tesco to launch Tesco Life early in the new year.

It has also launched into banking, healthcare, international investment and teamed up with Royal Bank of Scotland during the last two years.

But some IFAs fear the Edinburgh life office could be losing its way. They are concerned that it may be spreading itself too thinly rather than concentrating of its areas of expertise.

Widows&#39 revolution has also seen almost a third of its workforce slashed and an increasing focus on direct-sales distribution.

The sixth-biggest UK life office claims the internal revamp is a necessary step to ensure that it has the strength to tackle fresh challenges in a more globalised 21st Century.

But for all the attempts to become more dynamic, are these just the last throes of a life office which will not survive in its present mutual form?

The Scottish Widow may have marketing clout but many financial experts believe it is only a matter of time before she is wooed by a possible suitor. Others feel that demutualisation is inevitable.

There are also rumours that the Royal Bank of Scotland and Widows are set to merge. Widows has a 5 per cent stake in the bank.

Communications manager Alan Young has no doubt that Widows can survive the rigours of international competition.

He says: "A couple of years ago, we decided to take a fresh look at the company and work out how we were going to survive the challenges of the future.

"We needed to bring business costs down and develop a proposition for IFAs to keep pace with the challenges for the new millennium.

"We cut the workforce. It has given us flexibility and the ability to respond quickly in the world market."

Young believes the radical restructuring also sent out a signal that the management was taking the task of shaping up for the future seriously.

He says: "We are committed to our mutual and independent status and we believe this is a strength that IFAs and customers appreciate.

"Pensions are still at the heart of our business but healthcare is going to be more important, as is international and supermarket banking, so we want to get into these areas now."

About 90 per cent of Widows&#39 new business is still conducted through IFAs, with pensions taking up about 60 per cent of business, life insurance 20 per cent and Peps and other investments 20 per cent.

IFAs have a mixed opinion of Widows&#39 revolution. Many feel that the life office offers a reliable, honest service but increasingly fear that it does not have their best interests at heart.

City analysts do not share IFAs&#39 pessimism. Roman Cizdyn of Merrill Lynch sees no reason why Widows should demutualise and he does not believe that the tie-up with

RBS will go any further than the present marriage of con venience.

He says: "The only thing that can force them to demutualise is financial weakness. They are certainly in the driving seat and, being number nine in the country in premium income terms, they are strong enough to survive.

"Their relationship with the Royal Bank of Scotland suits them well, with RBS manag ing the distribution side with Widows&#39 knowhow. I can see no reason why this should change."

Aitchison & Colegrave managing director Brian Aitchison says: "We respect its strong technical knowledge and admin back-up but recent events lead us to question its commitment to the IFA sector. Our perception is that Widows is trying to squeeze as much as possible from every distribution channel and recent direct initiatives will almost certainly lead to conflicts of interest. Widows is setting out to undermine the IFA market with a strategy unlikely to overperform."

Holden Meehan partner and PIA director Amanda Davidson says: "It is right that Widows should explore other avenues but I hope it does not mean that it will lose its way. Perhaps its resources could be better used. I would likethe company to focus more on IFAs and provide us with more nitty-gritty information on what its plans are."

Steve Kelland of Kelland & Partners says:

"Widows&#39 products are instantly attractive to customers because of the logo. Its fast, direct service is very helpful for us and our customers but it should be wary that the costs of direct selling can be high."

Hargreaves Lansdown Asset Management chairman Stephen Lansdown says: "I perceive Widows as a quality office and I am not too concerned about the company developing banking products if it can complement what IFAs offer. Demutualisation could be a natural development and I would not be surprised to see it happen in the next 12 months to two years."

Scottish Widows factfile

Scottish Widows Fund and Life Assurance Society opens in 1815.

Debbie Barrymore (Roger Moore&#39s daughter) becomes the first Scottish Widow to grace the ad campaign in 1986.

Amanda Lamb, age 25, steps in as the new model in 1994.

Scottish Widows Bank opens in May 1995.

Scottish Widows and the Royal Bank of Scotland team up. Widows takes a stake in Royal Scottish Assurance and agrees to the launch of joint venture Direct Line Life in November 1996.

In February this year, Royal Bank of Scotland and Tesco agree to launch banking services for the supermarket chain with Widows&#39 support. Widows expected to launch Tesco Life in August 1998.

In the same month, Widows enters the mortgage market with its flexible mortgage.

Widows and Royal Bank of Scotland jointly launch the Scottish Widows credit card in June.

Widows goes international in August with the launch of the Jersey-based with-profits bond.

Widows enters the healthcare market in November with the launch of the disability income plan and care plan.

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