`Instant gratification is too slow' for career banker turned consumer-focused life assurer

 

Friends First would like to combine the customer service ethos of Superquinn with the scale and size of Marks and Spencer, says Mr Adrian Hegarty. The idea of comparing the insurance business with retailing, even 10 years ago, would have been heretical to many top executives in the industry. But Mr Hegarty is not someone who pays much attention to inherited conventions.

He says the days of actuaries running insurance companies are ending and the whole industry needs to become more responsive to customers as responsive as a supermarket, for example.

Friends First plans to do more than just provide life assurance and investment products. He expects the company to become a "broad-based financial services company", offering extras like deposit facilities and credit cards.

When Eureko Ireland, which consisted of nine different subsidiaries including Friends Provident, announced it was changing its name to Friends First in April it was accompanied by the usual fanfare press launch, shiny billboard posters and a high-tech presentation for staff at the Point Depot in Dublin.

Mr Hegarty says the name change is not a cosmetic move but is designed to tell customers they are now at the centre of everything the company does.

While such sentiments are expressed by almost all companies, he says a customer-orientated approach is relatively new to the insurance industry, which in the past often spent more time concentrating on actuarial reports and keeping brokers happy.

Mr Hegarty, known as "Hego" by many of his colleagues, describes himself as a "career banker" and his 27 years working with Bank of Ireland might seem an unusual background for the head of an insurance company.

His appointment in January 1996 seems to have started something of a trend bankers running large insurance firms. Since he took up his job, Mr David Went has become managing director of Irish Life and Mr Hegarty says it is likely to continue.

He says in Friends First "no one stands on ceremony" and hierarchies are kept to a minimum. Mr Hegarty's personality suits this approach. He spent his childhood in Co Mayo and several years working in New York contributed to a relaxed and informal business style.

He dislikes the idea of sitting in endless meetings and is more interested in seeing "things getting done". His time in New York in the early 1980s working for Bank of Ireland was vital to his development, he says. He likes the "honesty" of US business people and the way they don't "beat around the bush". Their Irish counterparts have a tendency to talk around problems, he adds.

When he returned to Ireland, he was appointed head of marketing with the bank and learned the skill of explaining and selling financial products to consumers.

In 1990, he got more hands-on experience in customer-focused financial services when he set up the Premier Banking service for the bank. The company offered loans and other services over the phone and when it started many said it would not survive, says Mr Hegarty. "Everyone told us, Irish people don't like talking about their finances over the phone," he remembers. However, the division quickly became very profitable for Bank of Ireland and Mr Hegarty gained the kind of experience he now draws on at Friends First.

When the Eureko Alliance, the European parent company of Friends First, called him in 1996 and offered him the job, he had very few misgivings about making the move.

"While I had no experience with insurance, I had set up two new businesses with Bank of Ireland from scratch, so I wasn't too daunted by the challenges," he says. Some colleagues in the bank said he was mad but he says even if it all went wrong tomorrow, he would still not regret his decision to leave.

This is not because he did not enjoy his years there but simply felt he wanted to do something new.

At the time he started, the company had just reported a pre-tax loss for the year of £800,000. He says he decided to turn this around by tackling the "cultural difficulties" in the company. These manifested themselves in an excessive focus on the nature of products, rather than consumers needs.

He began a process of talking to staff in small groups and asking them where they thought things were going wrong. He confesses he then "poached" some personnel from other banks and insurers and blended them with the existing staff to form what he calls "the Friends First team".

The result of this process became clear a year later when the company reported pre-tax profits of £4.4 million, mainly through the Friends Provident subsidiary.

Looking back, he says speed was vital in turning the company around and speed is something he still regards as important when making decisions. With huge consolidation taking place in the insurance industry, he says companies do not have time to dwell endlessly on their next move. He likes to use a motto he picked up in the US "instant gratification is too slow".

His target is to see the company control 10 per cent of the life assurance market by 2000, if not earlier. He says the company is not happy with just surviving the current turbulence, but wants to be "a player". His main competitors Irish Life, Ark Life and New Ireland won't be happy to just survive either and are all seeking to grow aggressively. However, he says none have decided to go the route of becoming a financial services company.

Friends First, he adds, is always looking to acquire some of its smaller competitors, and with a smile, he forecasts it might just swallow up some bigger entities too.

In the light of recent revelations, he says transparent financial products will now become market leaders. Financial products which are "too obtuse" for consumers will have to be phased out. The company expects to see strong growth in its investment products business as people become wealthier. "People are looking for new investment options, simple banks accounts are just not enough anymore," he says. With less than 50 per cent of the population in a pension scheme, there is growth in that market too.

The potential returns from all this are significant, but Mr Hegarty says unless staff are involved in the running of the company it will not happen. He employs unique methods to this end. One of them is what he calls the "acceleration room" which involves 20 linked PCs where staff of all grades can submit their views anonymously and these are then taken away and analysed.

He says having the Eureko Alliance as a parent has been helpful. While that company has total assets worth £75 billion and employs 35,0000 in 14 countries, he says there has never been any interference in the Irish operation. "The fact that we were able to change our group name is proof of that," he says. He would not be happy just implementing decisions made elsewhere, he points out.