The Lowdown: Profile Sandy Leitch - This Man Wants You to Trust Him ; Sandy Leitch of Zurich Talks to Melanie Bien about His Mission to Restore Faith in the Insurance Industry
Bien, Melanie, The Independent (London, England)
Roadshows are a fact of life for chief executives of big companies. And when times are hard, the need to get out there and meet the public is even more crucial - no matter how unattractive the prospect.
Last week, however, Sandy Leitch, the UK chief executive of Zurich Financial Services, found himself stopping off in Bournemouth, Cardiff and Newcastle to deliver motivational talks not to customers but to staff. It is a reflection of how difficult the current climate is for the insurance industry, which is tainted by association with high-profile failures such as Equitable Life and Independent Insurance, as well as facing huge bills for payouts in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States.
"Business conditions are tough," says Leitch. "My job is to communicate that to my staff - the message is blunt but I have to be realistic and frank. Now more than ever, people need insurance and we have to keep that in perspective."
Leitch is refreshingly open. As chief executive of the UK division of Europe's third-largest insurance company, the miner's son from Dunfermline - who still supports the town's football team because it's "nice to have something that has been constant in your life for 40 years" - is prepared to criticise his own industry.
He acknowledges that the Equitable Life debacle - in which the insurer closed to new business after the House of Lords ruled that it had to honour guarantees made to policyholders - is responsible for much of the public's current mistrust of the industry. But he believes Zurich will weather the storm.
"Of course this affects the reputation of the industry, but Zurich's is a relationship business," he stresses. "When one of our advisers talks to a customer, he establishes a bond, so trust isn't a problem for us.
"Trust is fundamental to the insurance industry," he goes on. "You are trusting your hard-earned savings to an organisation. That trust was dented by pensions mis-selling, dented by Equitable. As an industry, we have to push as hard as we possibly can to restore that trust."
Having spent his entire career in the industry, starting at Allied Dunbar - then called Hambro Life - as a systems designer, Leitch clearly believes in the value of insurance. He feels that the industry can make a real difference to people's lives, and nowhere will this be more apparent than in the handling of claims following the US attacks. But he worries that 40 per cent of families in this country have no life cover, while eight million people rely on the state pension scheme.
"When difficulties occur for all those people, there is personal tragedy and huge hardship," he says. "As an industry we make the difference between dignity and destitution."
When Leitch was chief executive of Allied Dunbar Assurance, he used to go down to the claims department and see the claims coming in. "There's a widow who is devastated by the loss of her husband," he recalls, "but you have to remember that his life insurance makes a difference to her future. Then there is somebody saving 20 years for a pension in order to retire with dignity and do some of the things they always wanted to. …