Canadian with his finger on the pulse of Irish Life
Irish Life chief executive Bill Kyle says Great-West Lifeco is here for the long haul after paying ‘a very fair price’ for the company
Bill Kyle, chief executive of Irish Life, at his offices in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Canadian Bill Kyle loves sport and has wasted no time in immersing himself in Gaelic games since landing here on July 1st to take over as Irish Life chief executive.
He was at the Dublin-Cork hurling semi-final and the Dublin-Kerry football equivalent, both lauded as classic matches. It might explain the Dublin jersey with Kyle’s name printed on the back hanging on its lonesome from a coat rack in his generously proportioned corner office on the ninth floor of the Irish Life building on Abbey Street.
And the hurley and sliotar in Cork and Clare colours respectively, draped across one on the window sills.
“They were just unbelievable matches,” he says in a discernible north American accent.
Kyle was a handy footballer himself – Canadian football. He even had a sniff of a professional contract. Instead, he ended up working in the life and pensions industry.
“I went through university thinking I would probably become a teacher, partly because I wanted to be able to coach high school football,” Kyle recounts from one of the leather couches in his office.
“Coming out of university, I actually had a chance to try out for a professional team called the Calgary Stampeders. But I decided at my height [he’s no giant], I might be better to get a real job.
“My football coach had played university football for a bunch of guys who had all worked for London Life. He suggested I go talk with them. There was a real team atmosphere. It was competitive. I liked it.”
Thirty-four years on and Kyle has been parachuted into Ireland by his bosses at Canadian financial group Great-West Lifeco to manage the integration of Irish Life with its existing Canada Life business.
Great-West Lifeco paid the Government €1.3 billion to acquire Irish Life, a deal that formally went through towards the end of July.
Canada Life had operated in Ireland since 1903 (though not always under the ownership of Great-West Lifeco), yet still only had a 5 per cent market share. The acquisition of Irish Life means the Canadians are now market leaders with a share of about 35 per cent.
“It [Canada Life] had a small market share and couldn’t get the critical mass that you need to be successful. It just wasn’t going to be sustainable in the long run. With the way competition is these days, you’ve got to have good unit costs. So something had to happen here.”
Kyle says Great-West Lifeco is “thrilled” by its acquisition.
Some commentators believe the Canadians have bought Irish Life on the cheap as a result of the Government’s eagerness to return one of the financial institutions in its ownership to the private sector and demonstrate to the markets, that Ireland is now regarded as a good punt by global corporations as the clock ticks down to our exit from the Troika bailout programme.
“I’m not sure €1.3 billion is cheap,” Kyle responds. “It’s reasonable given the circumstances . . . we think we’ve got an opportunity to grow the business and to realise good value from it over the long term. Our feeling would be that we paid a very fair price for it and that it has a good upside.”
Kyle is Mr Integration. He estimates that it will take about two years to meld together Irish Life with Great-West Lifeco’s businesses here. That’s not just Canada Life’s Irish business: Ireland also hosts the Winnipeg-based group’s data centre for Europe, a reinsurance business, and its German operation located in Dublin.
Kyle’s plan is to bring together these various entities under the one roof in Abbey Street. When completed, about 2,300 staff will be based there compared with around 1,700 previously as Irish Life.
“Great-West Lifeco will have more people in Ireland than Google or Microsoft, which I think is interesting,” he says.
In the corporate world, putting two and two together rarely equals four. It’s more like three and a half. So it is with the merger of Irish Life and Canada Life.