The Insurer Who Believes in Giving Something Back; INTERVIEW Otto Thoresen Has Taken a Pay Cut to Head the Association of British Insurers but His Passion Makes It Worth Every Penny

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Byline: Chris Blackhurst City Editor

ONE of the sadder aspects of the City is that not enough stars are prepared to take a cut and put their experience back into the industry that served them so well. Too many professional bodies and trade associations are run by outsiders who may know what they're talking about but do not command the same respect of the members as someone who knows what the industry's like and has made it to the very top.

Otto Thoresen is one of the few to have broken the mould. He's the new director-general of the Association of British Insurers, having quit his job as head of Aegon UK. Today sees him make his first major speech in charge of an organisation that is second to none in terms of economic clout. Consider the following: UK insurance employs 275,000 people; it manages investments of [pounds sterling]1.6 trillion, equivalent to 24% of the UK's total net worth. It contributes [pounds sterling]8.2 billion in taxes, and is a major exporter raking in [pounds sterling]54 billion in overseas premiums.

Just as importantly, insurance provides a social need. In 2009 alone, the UK insurance industry paid out [pounds sterling]173 million per day in pension and life insurance benefits, and [pounds sterling]58 million per day in general insurance claims.

Yet, for all that power, the industry remains relatively unknown -- its products a source of mystery to many. Part of the blame for that, says Thoresen over breakfast ahead of his first major speech at the ABI's biennial conference today, lies with the insurers themselves.

"My agenda as director-general is based on the real belief that as an industry we can offer positive solutions and we can make a real difference to the quality of someone's life.

"But we have to improve our positioning, regulation, the way we deal with customers, and their understanding of what we do. A gap exists between us and how we deliver our business."

Adds Thoresen: "It's why I became involved at the ABI after 30 years working in the industry." He's not, he says when asked, a poacher turned gamekeeper.

"I like to think that instead of working with one company, I'm now working with lots of them."

Thoresen speaks with a Scottish burr. The Thoresen bit comes from his father, a Norwegian former captain in the merchant navy. He tells how his father left the north of Norway, aged 14 and one of 14 children, for the south and then fled to north-east Scotland when the Germans invaded. He sailed in the Atlantic convoys during the Second World War and afterwards worked for the Norwegian Shipping Line. "He was away from home for two years at a stretch. He had big whiskers -- every inch the flamboyant Viking."

By contrast, his mother was a Scots Presbyterian. "If we played cards on a Sunday, we had to draw the curtains so nobody could see us." His father's lack of education made him determined the young Otto should have one, so he was steered towards the local university at Aberdeen. "I did mathematics and loved it -- it's such a beautiful subject!" He obtained a double first in maths and stats. His girlfriend was a lawyer and wanted to go to Edinburgh. Thoresen, having nothing to do, decided to use his passion for numbers, and trained as an actuary.

It was not enough for him. "I discovered I could translate complicated things into simple things." He moved into marketing for Abbey Life, based in Bournemouth. "I'd been with [Scottish Equitable] for 10 years and although I'd done well, I wasn't sure if my success was built on knowing how the organisation worked or on being good." When Lloyds bought Abbey Life and relocated it to London, his job changed and he quit for Royal Insurance. He got his first general management role, running the insurer's offshore operations in the Isle of Man. Then came Aegon UK, back in Edinburgh. …