Lives: Beachely, Near Chepstow
Born: September 23, 1939 in Heywood,Lancashire
Education and qualifications: Apprenticeship, technical colleges in Kent and Lancashire, chartered engineer
Career to date: Engineering then management position in the paper industry
Career ambition: “Don't know that I really had one ”
Life ambition: “Again, don't think I have one.”
Likes: Intellectual challenge, variety, squash, travelling
Dislikes: “Gross injustice – it really infuriates me. Also, I do not like bullying.”
Peers say: “He is a straight man and his heart in the right place but he has taken loyalty too far and has ended up being a foot soldier for the board, marching people into a bad compromise.”
Car: Peugeot 306 convertible
Ron Bullen does not intend to have a quiet retirement pruning roses. Apart from the not inconsiderable matter of his three Equitable Life policies to deal with, he has been looking around for something to do. An Open University course in French does not quite hit the spot.
He had been writing letters of outrage to newspapers about Equitable when he learned that IFA Whitechurch Securities was setting up an action group. He turned up to a meeting and was elected chairman of the Equitable Policyholders' Action Group, which represents 70,000 policyholders. Now, after spending the last year or so attacking Equitable's board, Bullen has been co-opted on to the board as a non-executive director.
He says Elphag took a pragmatic view. “We did not think it would be useful just to express outrage and criticise anything that was done,” he says. Bullen says the group agreed to support measures it felt were in the interest of members, remembering the broad church it represented.
But he does not accept that the board appointment is the prize for a moderate line, as others have suggested. He says his group pushed for the setting up of the Herbert Smith inquiry looking into who can be sued for the predicament in which policyholders find themselves. He says the group was also instrumental in getting the old board to resign.
Bullen is now handing over the reins as chairman of Elphag as there would be a clear conflict of interest.
US president Lyndon Johnson famously said of J Edgar Hoover that it was “better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in”. Bullen laughs at the suggestion that this could apply to himself but says he does not believe his group has been that kind of irritation to the board.
He believes it was pressure from the FSA for policyholder representation that led to his appointment. He says he will bring to the board “a layman's common sense” to sit alongside the highly specialised skills and professional detachment already there.
How does he feel about working with people he has been attacking? Bullen says: “I am sure they are big enough to accept my appointment.” He says he has good working relations with chief executive Charles Thompson.
Bullen's working life was spent as an engineer and then manager in the paper industry. There can be few issues that can have generated a bigger paper mountain than the crisis that has engulfed the world's oldest life insurance company and compromises the retirement of so many.
He will be a voice for transparency and open communication, but he does not agree with a small, highly qualified and vocal minority who want more technical information. “What most policyholders require is some very simple and basic information,” he says.
Bullen had two pension plans and a bond with Equitable. After talks with his IFA, he now has an annuity with another provider as well as being an Equitable with-profits annuitant – the “worst possible position”. He says the bond was not worth leaving with Equitable.
IFAs are responding to Equitable's latest cuts in bonus rates with similar recommendations to leave the firm. So will there be a renewed exodus?
Bullen says: “There could be, but the 14 per cent MVA is quite significant. It is the duty of IFAs to be honest with people. Some IFAs were trying to exploit the situation but there have been those that have done a lot of work for policyholders.”
Bullen's nightmare is that massive misselling claims will succeed. However, he thinks it is unlikely as Elphag has done an appraisal and does not believe many will have a rational basis for a misselling claim.
What gets Bullen's goat in particular is that he feels it is retired people – and Equitable with-profits policyholders in particular – who are having to shoulder the burden of regulatory failure. Soon after becoming chairman of Elphag, he was invited on to a BBC talk show where the presenter quipped that it was “just another pensions scandal” before they went on air. “Says it all really,”says Bullen.
He says: “People's pensions should be as near certain as possible. Obviously, they will be affected by the markets but for a court ruling to be able to damage the pensions of up to one million people is outrageous.”
Bullen describes himself as a balanced person but also someone who is motivated by a sense of rank injustice. But his main fury is directed at the Government and its regulators. “People who posture on the world stage should be able to sort this out,” he says.
The decision on whether the Government will compensate policyholders with have to wait until the outcome of Lord Penrose's review but there will now be at least one voice on Equitable's board pressing for it.