T here are not too many people who can legitimately claim that the futures of more than a million people once hung on their ability to deliver the goods under pressure.
But it would no exaggeration to say that Lovells partner Robin Spencer is among them. As group manager in the international law firm's London office, Spencer was responsible for devising the Equitable Life compromise scheme which represents the stricken life office's only hope remaining solvent.
Having made last month's deadline for the completion of the compromise pack, Spencer is modest about the burden he and his team were under, crediting Equitable chairman – and fellow lawyer – Vanni Treves with absorbing most of the front-line fire. But he admits the scrutiny of so many policyholders did put on the pressure.
Under the proposals which Treves is urging upon policyholders, guaranteed annuity policyholders would give up their guarantees in exchange for 17.5 per cent increase in the value of their policies. In return for relinquishing rights to pursue Equitable for misselling, non-guaranteed policyholders would get an 2.5 per cent uplift.
“The number of people the scheme affects is unprecedented and developing a scheme in the public eye only adds to the pressure. At times, life seemed very hard but the Equitable is extremely pleased that we managed to deliver on time,”says Spencer.
Whether the policyholders are as pleased as Equitable will only be seen this week when the make or break scheme is put to the vote but you can understand the enormous relief in Spencer's voice when he tells you his average working day from August to December was around 15 hours, seven days a week.
“In order to obtain the £250m from Halifax, the deal has to be effective by March 1. A large number of people at Lovells had to work very hard for there to be a chance for this to happen. It was difficult but we are all trained to deal with pressure.”
None more so than Spencer. After obtaining a law degree from Pembroke College, Cambridge he qualified as a barrister in 1981 and worked for the Civil Service for two years. He says it was interesting but moved to the Customs & Excise in 1983, staying for three years. It was an experience that he looks back on with obvious affection. “I covered tax fraud in the main, with some drugs cases as well. It was good fun, it taught me to think on my feet and I got to know how Government departments work.”
He left in 1986 and went to work for Lovells. It turned out to be an inspired move as within months he was seconded to Bermuda-based attorneys Appleby, Spurling & Kempe.
“It was delightful. Obviously working in Bermuda is different from being on holiday there but the weather and the nightlife provided plenty of compensations. I also met my wife there – she was my next-door neighbour.”
He says the two years he spent in Bermuda taught him about insurance firms, giving him the grounding he would later rely on when specialising on business reconstruction and insolvency. He has worked on high-profile projects, including the Lloyd's restructuring in 1996, but says they pale in comparison to the Equitable compromise scheme.
“It is certainly the greatest challenge. I have done some very difficult jobs but none of them compares to this in terms of complexity and the number of people it affects. That is not taking into account the money involved – Equitable's with-profits fund alone is worth around £21bn.”
For a man who has spent his life working under such intense pressure, it would be natural to assume that Spencer unwinds by indulging in leisurely pursuits aimed at gently recharging depleted batteries. But that would be wrong. In 1998 he decided to compete in the much-feared Marathon des Sables, a 145-mile foot-race across the Sahara which lasts six days. It was ostensibly to raise money for the Variety Club Children's Hospital at Kings College in London but Spencer admits it was also his desire to “do something spectacular before I hit 40”.
This year he plans a bungee jump, but first he must await the outcome of the equally precarious Equitable vote, which takes place on January 11. The scheme needs at least 75 per cent of policyholders in three voting classes to vote before it can be passed. In typically lawyerly fashion, Spencer gives little away. He refuses to predict the outcome but says policyholders must realise they have no other choice.
“As Equitable has said, there is no possible alternative, no plan B. We have done the best we can with this scheme and now it is in the hands of the policyholders.”
Lives: Chesham, Buckinghamshire.
Born: May 27, 1958.
Education and qualifications: Birkenhead School, Degree in Law from Pembroke College, Cambridge, MA in Law.
Career to date: 1981-83 Civil Service, 1983-86 solicitors' office Customs & Excise, 1987 to present Lovells, partner in 1994.
Career ambition: “To see the Equitable deal safely through the courts and to work hard and enjoy life.”
Life ambition: “To live a long time.”
Likes: Travel, reading, running and family life.
Dislikes: “People not being committed to a project.”
Peers says: “Over the past few years he has developed an extremely impressive profile in the insurance insolvency world. He is one of the leading individuals in his field.”
Car: Mercedes E-class, Morris Minor convertible.