Sir Brian Stewart says he never intended to lead Standard Life through the most torrid period of its 181-year history.
It just worked out that way. In the past three years he has shepherded the pensions and life assurance giant through an astonishing turnaround, from struggling old-fashioned mutual to FTSE 100 giant generating record profits. Yet even now, with just two days left before he steps down from his post, Sir Brian remains a master of understatement.
"It wasn't what I expected to do, but then you don't really think about it at the time. You just look at what's in front of you and get on with it," he explains through a broad smile, on a morning last week in his Edinburgh office.
When the affable 62-year-old Scot, who also chairs brewer Scottish & Newcastle, took over as chairman at the beginning of 2004, the mutual was in a dire state. It had just been forced by the regulator, which was worried about its stability in the wake of the near-collapse of its fellow insurer Equitable Life, to unload more than [pound]7. 5bn in equity holdings at the bottom of the market. That translated to a [pound]456m loss that year, and many of its customers finding themselves suddenly sitting on policies worth tens of thousand of pounds less than before. Meanwhile the popularity of with-profits endowments, long Standard Life's bread and butter, dropped off a cliff as they underperformed in the bear market. The insurer was looking into the abyss.
But in the serenity of hindsight, Sir Brian says that he never once thought that it might not be possible to turn it around.
"I genuinely didn't, and I don't mean that arrogantly," he explains. "It's not a personal thing. It was not about me. I just believed this company was tremendously powerful. It was a question of redirecting and refocusing the business, of rediscovering its momentum."
To do that, however, required major surgery. Sir Brian replaced chief executive Iain Lumsden with Sandie Crombie to lead the makeover, thus beginning a tortuous journey back to health that culminated last year in Standard Life's demutualisation and flotation on the stock exchange.
"What had to be done was that we had to rebuild confidence, with our regulator and with our customers. We had to communicate more effectively, and we had to make the business profitable," he says.
Yet the necessary changes had to go beyond simply getting the numbers to work again. A massive cultural change was also in order. The mutual was seen as aloof and arrogant, an anachronistic organisation clinging to its glorious past to the detriment of its future. Just four years previously, it had fought off a spirited attempt by activist shareholders to force it to demutu-alise. The management - Sir Brian and Mr Crombie among them - had done so by vociferously arguing for the "benefits of mutuality". Now, they had to do just the opposite.
It was a two-year march of contrition, punctuated by a series of roadshows around the country, where Sir Brian and the other top executives would sit down with 200 policyholders at a time to explain why they were now reversing course.
"There was an acceptance that we made mistakes, and that we had to move away from them. I was on the board when we made the mistakes, so I contributed to them. The question is getting over them, sorting it out, and going on from there," he says.
The sessions often attracted Standard Life's most irate policyholders, who had little compunction about colourfully expressing their displeasure. But Sir Brian says the meetings were "good fun".
He adds: "You can be caught out big time, but that's life. But we weren't flailing ourselves for no good reason. If you are prepared to listen to people, then they are more willing to make allowances for the things you are trying to do."
What he was trying to do was right a ship that for nearly two centuries was firmly going in one direction despite rising headwinds. …