The ABI's European sentry is finding his skills learnt as an anti-apartheid campaigner useful in trying to negotiate to find harmony between the EU and the UK insurance industry.
As head of European affairs, Simon Gentry says his job is to manage a team that scans for EU developments affecting the UK insurance industry and assessing their impact. This involves talking to the EU, Government, companies and other European organisations but overall his job is to minimise the damage that EU legislation could have on the insurance industry.
What should IFAs have on their radar? Gentry says the Government and the FSA will soon be looking to implement the insurance mediation directive in this country. This is the directive that forced a quick about-face from the Government to regulate general insurance. “While there were misjudgements, the directive is as it is and we are working for a sensible implementation,” he says, with well honed diplomatic skills.
Gentry says we should not be deceived by a temporary lull in activity from the EU following the first push on directives that contribute to a single market for financial services by 2005. “We are awaiting a second wave of new directives and initiatives,” he says.
He points to a new pension directive, which will set the framework for a pan-European pension which will mean that an intermediary will have to assess as part of a fact-find whether the client's pension should be fully portable across Europe.
This directive is at an early stage but Gentry says the insurance companies are very keen on the idea. He believes that IFAs should be positive about the initiative too. “This is an exciting opportunity for IFAs, who could sell pensions across Europe.” He believes the highly developed pension market will give this country a headstart.
There are moves afoot to bring insurance within the remit of the controversial e-commerce directive which will affect many IFA conduct of business rules. Gentry has invited Aifa and its European counterpart Bipar on to a committee to work on issues arising from this.
The EU is also working on a new consumer protection directive, which he says will cover everything from socks to investments. But he says the high standards in the UK could mean that its impact here could be minimal.
His diplomacy comes to the fore when asked about the euro. While many EU documents present the single market as predicated on the euro, Gentry sidesteps probably our biggest domestic political issue. “The euro is a marginal issue for us. Enlargement of the EU means there will be 25 member states and the majority of those will not be in the euro. It is a much more of an issue for wholesale financial services.”
His description of Brussels contrasts with prevailing UK preconceptions. “The Commission is an extremely open institution. It is very easy to access and very clear about what it wants to achieve, with no left/right politics.”
And his criticism of the institution will surprise many. “It is woefully understaffed. The Commission employs 12,000 people, of whom half are support staff or translators. There are only 10 people working on insurance – all of whom are generalists.”
While in Brussels, he met his wife, a Belgian and part of the army of translators – she speaks seven languages. They now live in West London and Gentry is learning Dutch, together with his two sons, aged 18 months and five.
Gentry speaks with a soft-voiced indeterminable accent that is the legacy of being brought up in South Africa. Although born in London, he was taken on holiday to South Africa when he was three and did not return when his father was offered a job as a travel agent.
At that time, apartheid was in full swing, and Gentry recalls his parents' house being full of opponents and campaigners against the regime. He says he absorbed his parents' values and that they have indirectly led to his current job.
Studying architecture in Johannesburg, he took a lively interest in politics and was active in the anti-apartheid movement. When he came to London in 1988, he took a job at Parliamentary lobbyist Westminster Strategy and when the firm opened an office in Brussels he transferred there and learned the intricacies of the EU.
In 1995, he took a job with pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham – as it was then known – to work on patent issues. Keen for a change, in May 2000 he went for an interview at the ABI, mainly he says to brush up his rusty interview technique but ended up taking the job when it was offered.
Since joining the ABI, he says there has been a sea-change in attitudes to the EU. Companies are devoting much more of their resources to Europe and the ABI has someone in Brussels at least once a week.
Together with a less ideological and more pragmatic stance from the Government, Gentry says the key difference is now the ABI understands the importance of being present and influencing discussions when new ideas are first presented, rather than fighting a fait accompli. And the EU, he says, is listening.
Born: January 4, 1967
Lives: Chiswick, West London with wife Patricia and two sons
Education and qualifications: School in South Africa. Studied architecture in Johannesburg Career to date: 1988, lobbyist for Westminster Strategy, transferred to new Brussels office in 1990. 1995, EU adviser for SmithKline Beecham to work on patent directives. May 2000, head of European affairs ABI.
Career ambition: “To remain stimulated by and interested in what I am doing.”
Life ambition: “For my sons to have the best possible education. For me and my wife to move to France and do practical things that have a beginning, middle and end.”
Likes: Understanding what makes people think what they are thinking. Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian music.
Dislikes: “I loathe selfishness.”
Peers say: “I like the man – he is one of the sharpest analysts of the European scene around.”
Car: “Don't have one – but if I am good I get to drive my wife's Mercedes.”