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Scott Dolfi

GE Life’s chief executive believes business is a simple affair. There are the needs of customers and you must have competitive products but service is the key. James Phillipps met him to discuss work, play and post-A-Day opportunities

GE Life’s kung fu master chief executive Scott Dolfi may not have the pension knowledge of many of his rivals but he has learnt his management skills under the very best.

In his 16 years with the biggest company in the world, he has worked under management guru Jack Welch and had the importance of customer service drilled into him.

“Business is simple. There are customer needs and you need competitive products, but service is key,” he says.

Certainly GE Life has come a long way since launching back in April 2002 – entering into the UK market through the acquisition of National Mutual. Dolfi immediately swept the boards, shaking up the management team by bringing in plenty of new blood, resulting in a team comprising roughly a third each from GE Life, National Mutual and new faces.

The end result has been a specialist post-retirement player majoring on equity release, drawdown, impaired annuities and Sipps. It seems bizarre that a division of the world’s largest firm had brand awareness issues in the early days, but Dolfi is confident GE Life is now a strong name in annuities and increasingly in its other favoured specialities.

He certainly has high hopes for equity release, a view mirrored in the market judging by the number of new entrants in the past year. Dolfi welcomes the competition, however, saying the market with all of its potential remains immature and anything that raises awareness of it has to be a positive thing.

“The potential is huge and is continuing to grow. New entrants in this space are very important. There is a strong customer need – sometimes people need an upfront lump sum, sometimes income and very often it is about enhancing their lifestyle,” he says.

Dolfi is aware that reversionary products have a bad name in some quarters – a throwback to the high-charge products launched by several high street banks in the 1980s, but says this was before his time. He says the need is still there – after all, there are plenty of people who want to remain in their houses and have that certainty of income.

“The challenge for the industry is to develop appropriate products to meet these needs,” he says.

Advisers are becoming increasingly aware of the product, and their comfort levels in recommending it are also growing, he adds. It is no longer the preserve of the specialist adviser.

GE Life has put a lot into its education drive, producing several sales aids for advisers and striving to produce clear literature that emphasises the risks associated with the product.

“It is an education process for both advisers and consumers and we are always very careful to ensure the risks are explained so everyone understands both the risks and the rewards.”

A similar education process underpins the firm’s annuities sales process and particularly around the benefits of exercising the open market option.

“Research shows the number of people exercising their open market option remains flat at 45 per cent. If you then look at how many people are eligible for non-standard annuities – such as smokers – it is roughly 40 per cent but only 10 to 15 per cent take it,” he says.

While GE Life may not have the product spread of the likes of Norwich Union or Standard Life, Dolfi is confident the group is well positioned in some of the most dynamic sectors of the market. Many commentators are championing the opportunities thrown up by A-Day and Dolfi is no different.

“Pension transfer business is growing and post A-Day drawdown provides even bigger opportunities. I think it will be a major area for us and we have just added a discretionary pension plan that is already proving to be very successful,” he says.

GE Life’s drawdown customers now have access to the discretionary management skills of Rathbones, Tilney, Quilters and Cazenove. While open architecture has been a regular theme of the industry in recent years, Dolfi is less enthusiastic for full open architecture, believing it can swamp the adviser.

As such, he says GE Life will stick with its four external managers – Fidelity, Invesco Perpetual, Newton and Liontrust. These sit alongside the group’s managed funds and range of trackers. Interestingly, the trackers have been taking the bulk of the money lately, he says, citing this as further evidence that fund supermarket-style numbers of fund links are not needed on investment products.

Staying on the differentiation beat, he stresses service as the most important one, particularly since products are becoming increasingly commoditised. This is a groupwide notion, he says. As chief executive of GE Life, Dolfi also sits on the GE European corporate council. This is basically a think tank of GE business leaders from across the group’s diverse range of business, which range from power to aerospace and from medical supplies to financial services.

“We look at all things outside the US and it is an opportunity to talk with people from different businesses. We may not know the ins and outs of each other’s industries but we all affected by the same issues, such as managing costs and staffing and we share ideas,” he says.

The travelling keeps him busy and means he relishes every moment he can spend with his family. He is soon to jet out and meet them at the family’s log cabin retreat in New Hampshire, USA. His focus on management style also emphasises the need to recharge the batteries and where better, he says, than by the lake in the pine forests of the New Hampshire mountains.

Even some of his pastimes can be applied to his work, not least his dedication to Jeet Kune Do, the martial art pioneered by Bruce Lee. He may work and play hard but he also appreciates the value of down time, as they call it in the US. With the post A-Day opportunities for a specialist firm such as GE Life, Dolfi might be well served by having a break now because, he says, the group is focused on ensuring next year will be one of the busiest and most success-ful in its history. Born: Louisville, Kentucky, USA, July 1962Lives: Notting Hill, London, with wife Betsy and daughters Elizabeth and Rebecca and son JohnEducation: BSc Business and Engineering, Clarkson University and MSc Management Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic InstituteCareer: 1987: TRW finance department, project management. 1989: GE fund manager and risk controller. 1995: GE Financial head of affinity business. 1999: GE Insurance Holdings chief operating officer. 2002: GE Life chief executiveLife ambition: To do everything I can for people around meHero: My fatherLikes: Martial arts, snow-boarding and spending time with my familyDislikes: People caught up in their own successCar: Uses trains and taxisFavourite author: John GrishamFavourite film: The GodfatherFavourite album: Everyday by the Dave Matthews Band

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