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

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.


Other acquisitions
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.

“Fewer than 300” staff are leaving the business under a voluntary severance package, according to Kyle. It expects to wring about €40 million in synergies from the merger.

Great-West Lifeco isn’t finished either, with Kyle indicating a strong interest in other acquisitions in Ireland.

“Where there are opportunities, we would certainly be interested in pursuing them,” he says. “I would expect there will be things that will come along that will be a good fit. We’re certainly on the lookout.”

Kyle is no stranger to the challenges presented by merging two companies and integrating their cultures and processes. He led Great-West Lifeco’s wealth management business in Canada for many years, growing it over a period of time through various acquisitions.

“I’ve probably done eight or nine of them in my career,” he explains.

They were all small deals, done here and there, which, when pieced together, created a meaningful business. He thinks Irish Life could repeat that trick here.

Kyle claims there has already been a positive spin-off for Irish Life following its takeover by Great-West Lifeco. Irish Life Investment Managers has won some “significant” mandates around Europe in the €250 million to €300 million range” since the deal went through.

Previously, it had suffered from the uncertainty over the company’s ownership structure, he says. Kyle declined to name the client wins, citing confidentiality.

Now that Great-West Lifeco has its feet under the table, what innovations from Canada can we expect?

There will be “a little more emphasis” on strategic planning. “We would normally have a pretty good five-year strategic plan in place that would be pretty well thought out, so that we understand opportunities and that sort of thing.

“Also, a little bit more of a controlled environment. You have to balance that with creativity and innovation. Analysing the risks associated with the business and making sure they are well understood.”

Were these weaknesses within Irish Life?

“Anytime, if you’re dealing in a particular region, you know that region, you’re comfortable with that region, so you can end up with an over-concentration of either assets exposed to local government or that kind of thing,” he says as diplomatically as he can. “It’s just a different perspective.”


Knee-jerk reactions
He stresses that Great-West Lifeco will take a long-term view on growing Irish Life.

“They are very patient and they invest for the long term and that allows you to grow a business and to make decisions that are in the interests of all the stakeholders rather than knee-jerk reactions to things from quarter to quarter.”

Canadians are regarded as conservative, cautious investors and Kyle concedes that some of this might end up rubbing off on Irish Life.

“We are absolutely mindful and deliberate in the decision-making process that we have,” he says.

Kyle acknowledges that morale at Irish Life has been impacted over the past couple of years but says there is a “buzz” once again about the place. He compliments the staff for retaining a high level of customer service during the period of uncertainty over its ownership.

“The customer service focus never wavered through that piece, which was very impressive,” he says.

Kyle has quite a bit of experience of pensions reform from his years in Canada and has participated in reports for regulators and government on this issue, which has become a hot topic here since the economy crashed and many defined benefit schemes ran into difficulties.

To Kyle, there are five key elements to a successful pension. “You have to join the plan early [in your career] to make it work. It should be mandatory. It [the pension] must be well invested, have a meaningful contribution and you can’t make withdrawals.”

Sounds logical when you put it like that. Kyle admits he wasn’t thrilled at having to join his scheme when he was just 23, but he’s happy now that he did.

On the wider issue of the Irish economy, Kyle said the view in the Great-West Lifeco boardroom is positive about the future of the country.

“It’s safe to say that, given the investment the company has made in Ireland, we feel very strongly about it. We’ve also stated publicly that Europe is an area where we want to grow. I would say overall, we’re quite optimistic about the future growth of Ireland and the EU.

“Our sense is that the Irish Government and the Irish people have dealt with the issue rather than trying to avoid it and, as a result, things are improving. I think it’s going to be a steady climb forward.”

Kyle is 58, an age when most senior executives are thinking about the run-in to retirement rather than uprooting themselves – he’s moved here with his wife Claire and dog Bella – and travelling across the Atlantic to live in a different country.

In March this year, he gave an interview to trade publisher Benefits Canada, where he discussed his “post-work years” and how he was looking forward to slowing down to spend more time with his family.

“Having time to spend over coffee and a newspaper to start the day would be a very good thing,” he told the publication.

“Ha, ha. I got a lot of grief over that, not least from my boss. It was actually the reporter [who] just took that slant on it,” he explains.

“And it wasn’t a terrible assumption to make necessarily because I’d worked for the company for 34 years and was at an age where a lot of people would be thinking about retiring.”


No hesitation
Why leave Canada for Ireland? “A combination of this opportunity and my desire to keep learning and be challenged and that sort of thing. Had I stayed in my old job, I probably would have been more inclined towards retirement.

“But, having this opportunity to do something very different, in a different country that I had liked when I’d been here, was too good to pass up.”

That trip was about seven years ago when he visited his daughter here. She spent a year working with property agents Druker Fanning.

“It rained for 10 days straight, apart from the two days when it snowed. It was over the St Patrick’s Day week. When we were leaving, I said to my wife that if a business opportunity ever arose to come here and live and work that would be just amazing. All of a sudden the Irish Life deal came up and I was asked to come over and there was no hesitation.”

How long does he expect his tour of duty to last? “I would certainly expect to be here, at a minimum, for three or four years and then see where life takes us from there.”

CV: Bill Kyle
Name: Bill Kyle
Job: Chief executive, Irish Life
Age: 58
Lives: Monkstown, Co Dublin
Family: Married with two adult children
Hobbies: Loves most sport and plays golf off an 11 handicap. “It used to be an eight but I don’t get to practise as much as I did. I’ve joined the Dún Laoghaire golf club, which is great.”
Something we might expect: He’s been paying into a pension plan since he was 23.
Something that might surprise: He loves to sing and play guitar – “something with a bit of edge” – and had a soundproofed room put into the basement of his home in Canada so he wouldn’t disturb anyone. “I’ve got a Gibson ES335 [electric guitar]. I’m sure if they knew how I play it, they’d take their logo off it – I’d be pretty sure [of that].”