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Slick Standard Lifers hauled over the carpet

An illuminating moment at Standard Life&#39s annual general meeting last week came as a disgruntled punter, when asked his name while calling for chief executive Sandy Crombie&#39s head on a plate, responded: “You might remember me, you wrote back to me last year reassuring me about the company&#39s mutual status.”

Flashes of policyholder anger such as this were frequent throughout the carefully controlled question and answer session but there was no sign of the complete indignation that some might have expected at the decision to demutualise.

Most were miffed that the U-turn should come now, when the value of the company has plummeted and only four years after Standard swatted off carpetbagger Fred Woollard.

But while policyholders were upset over bonuses and payouts and angry at the salary packages of the top brass, most seemed to understand Standard&#39s reasoning for the move.

There were no angry protests outside the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and no chants of “Mutuality for All” or crowds wearing pro-mutuality T-shirts.

Instead, shiny, smiling people greeted everyone as they entered the building, shepherding the record 1,000 attendees into the auditorium. Support for hecklers was generally limited to restrained applause.

But policyholders were angry over the directors&#39 pay packets and the remuneration committee&#39s report very nearly did not get passed. Policyholders saw their chance to see directors share their pain and 43.3 per cent voted against it.It is a message that Standard says it has taken on board.

The board members were neatly arranged on the stage against a Standard Life blue backdrop. It was a slick event and slickest of the slick was Crombie who had refined his presentation, filing off the edges in a bid to connect with the policyholders.

Removing himself from behind a desk and wandering along the front of the stage, he promised to withhold nothing in terms of his personal commitment to the company as it moved towards demutualisation. His description of a team of staff willing to give their all for Standard&#39s future, was worthy of a chapter in a self-help book.

But even the silky-smooth presentation could not save Crombie from policyholders&#39 attacks.

Branded a Standard Lifer, with no experience of flotations or plc operations, and the “carpetbagger-in-chief”, Crombie was defended by chairman Sir Brian Stewart who said Standard was very fortunate to have Crombie available to “pick up the baton” from former chief Iain Lumsden and take it through to demutualisation.

There was a cameo appearance from the most recently failed carpetbagger David Stonebanks. He welcomed most of Crombie&#39s justification for the review and demutualisation proposal but made a plea for with-profits bondholders and questioned why Standard would delay putting demutualisation to the vote for two years when, under his campaign, it would have been obliged to put it to the vote within two months.

Stewart replied, somewhat cryptically: “You can&#39t get a vote for a pig in a poke.”

But despite repeated re-quests by policyholders for the board to apologise to those who have suffered as a result of its decision to stay in equities longer than other insurers and for its sudden mutuality about-face, the board stood resolute.

At a press conference after the meeting, Stewart and Crombie said that anyone in the business could have regrets but that it was about having the right fundamental objectives all the way through.


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