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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006, 08:20 GMT 09:20 UK
Why Standard Life took a U-turn
By Hayley Millar
Business correspondent, BBC Scotland

Insurance company Standard Life is to hold a ballot on demutualisation at a meeting in Edinburgh on Wednesday. The move will need the support of more than 75% of the policyholders who vote before it can go ahead.

Standard Life sign
Standard Life hopes to scrap its once-cherished mutual status

Last autumn, Standard Life completed the mother of all U-turns when it chose demutualisation as the way forward for the company.

This meant that instead of being owned by its 2.4 million policyholders, it would be owned by shareholders.

The move followed two attempts by policyholders to force it to demutualise.

In 2000, Fred Woollard, a banker from Monaco, tried to topple Standard Life. The mutual spent 11m successfully defending its mutual status and convincing policyholders that they should not be swayed by the promise of short term financial gains.

In 2003, David Stonebanks, a retired teacher from Stevenage, tried again and failed.

Then in 2004, Standard Life advocated the same course of action.

Rollercoaster ride

So why did Europe's biggest mutual change its mind and abandon its 80-year-old mutual status?

The reason lies with the stock market - the very place where Standard Life now believes its destiny lies.

From 2000 to 2004, the equity markets were on a rollercoaster ride; plunging from the highs of a bull market to the lows of a stock market slump.

Standard Life stubbornly retained a high proportion of its money in shares, leaving it over-exposed to a prolonged bear market. Questions were being asked about how it was managing its assets.

Standard Life has been shaping up to become a FTSE 100 company

However, the demise of another once great institution, Equitable Life, also played a part.

It hit the buffers after it became clear that it was operating with little or no capital reserves.

New and more rigorous solvency regulations were brought in to prevent this happening again.

At the end of 2003, these new regulations forced Standard Life to switch 7.5bn from equity to bonds.

Standard Life was now in a corner. It needed to raise more money, but how?

Business from with-profits policies was falling fast across the insurance industry as people woke up to the fact that their life savings and pensions were exposed to the stock market.

Staunch defender

Having seen thousands of pounds wiped off their investments, many people were shunning the stock market.

In 2000, new with-profits business accounted for half of Standard Life's growth. By 2004, that growth was down to single figures.

In 2004 Sandy Crombie was elevated to group chief executive, replacing Ian Lumsden, a staunch defender of mutuality.

Mr Crombie had to act quickly, carrying out a strategic review of the business and deciding how best to take it forward.

Job losses

In October, 2004, he announced that the best way forward was to demutualise and float on the stock market, allowing Standard Life to raise at least 1bn of new capital.

Since then Standard Life has been shaping up to become a FTSE 100 company. It has made about 100m of cost savings, involving the loss of 3,500 jobs.

In the last financial year, it has seen a turnaround, making a profit of half a billion pounds.

The management also looks very different from the time of the demutualisation vote back in 2000. Only three of the 13 directors are still on the company's board.

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