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Provident safeguards mutuality with strong arm in the protection sector.

Because everybody is piling into pensions, margins are being driven down

David Woods

Scottish Provident reckons it can survive as a mutual - by being the biggest in the protection business.

Five years ago, the organisation realised it had not the size to compete across the board against its Scots' rivals, Standard Life and Scottish Widows.

Chief executive Mr David Woods says the decision was taken to pull back from the UK pensions market and focus on protection, with products such as life assurance, critical illness cover and permanent disability cover.

"Because everybody is piling into pensions, margins are being driven down and put bluntly, from where we were, we couldn't be good at pensions," he said.

"The reality is, if you dabble you end up being not particularly good at anything. Eventually, we came to protection."

This week, Mr Woods told analysts that the successful switch of stance now meant Provident could remain an independent mutual.

Some mid-sized life and pension mutuals, such as Scottish Amicable and National Provident Institution, have been forced in recent years to join listed groups to survive.

Scottish Provident's shift of focus, though, means it has acquired almost a third of the UK protection market, ahead of Scottish Widows. Five years ago, its share was just two per cent.

This week's results showed that Provident's business from new single premium policies rose 30 per cent to almost pounds 500 million last year, with the biggest growth in protection. Income from annual premiums rose by a third to more than pounds 100 million.

Mr Woods points out that in 1994, new business growth rose by less than ten per cent.

Scottish Provident, which was founded in the 1830s, now has more than pounds 8 billion assets under management and employs 3,000 staff. It has operations in the UK, the Isle of Man, Spain and Greece.

Last year, more than half of its new business came from outside Britain.

Mr Woods said the move into protection had been successful, partly because competitors' interest in the sector fluctuated, but also because it freed up the group's brightest people to concentrate on one area.

He admitted that currently there was not as much pressure on profit margins in protection, but expects that to change as other groups suffering from tough competition in the pensions' industry look to potentially more lucrative areas.

Scottish Provident distributes its products purely through independent financial advisors rather than its own direct sales force. Its fund management is also handled externally, by Aberdeen Asset Management.

Mr Woods said the success of the new strategy had reinforced its determination

to staying mutual.

"We would only look at giving up our independence, or becoming a listed company, if we decided we could not produce a decent return, or if our capital base was being eroded because of our mutual status," he said.

"However, neither of those things are happening and we have both robust plans to develop the business and the capital strength to do it," said Mr Woods.

The traditional measure of financial strength in the life and pensions' sector is a group's free asset ratio - ie, the relationship of its freely-available assets to its total assets.
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Title Annotation:National
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 19, 1999
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