June 6, 2014

Insurance Times this week ran an exclusive in-depth interview with (vaguely) new RSA boss Stephen Fester.

IT Editor Celtic West reports that “the tough questions from Insurance Times [came] thick and fast for the well-spoken Hester [sic].”

How did the well-spoken Fester cope? Obviously, you’d have to read IT to find out. But… you don’t want to do that! Instead, let Bankstone News bring you the choicest and juiciest highlights of this seminal interrogation in partially pre-digested form, in the style, if you will, of those famous Andean Chicha ladies.

It’s a fair bet he didn’t call him this to his face, but West’s profile characterises Fester as a “baby-faced banker”, a reference, no doubt, to his doughy visage and sketchy thatch – and to the former career in which Fester won the accolade of “better than Fred” at RBS.

West detects a “buzz” among staff at RSA’s “plush new offices”, a buzz not unrelated, he suggests, to the presence of a new boss who “comes with a high profile”, “certainly has clout” and is a “keen gardener” with a fabulous pile in Oxfordshire.

Yes, he may get paid a lot of money, but then Fester has big plans for RSA. “I would like the company that I lead to be recognised as being really good,” he reveals, “or,” he adds parenthetically, “on a journey towards being really good.”

In practice that means taking an axe to the dead wood, pulling out weeds like the 800 motor-only brokers recently uprooted, tidying up the balance sheet, and generally concentrating, as West puts it, on making RSA “really good in its chosen areas.”

Doing more than one thing can prove problematic, Fester tells West, especially if you are not doing at least one of those things very well: “If you are doing some things in a sub-optimal way it means you are not getting better at other things because you are dividing your energies,” he explains.

Yes, but what about those uprooted brokers, West challenges doggedly: will RSA maintain a presence in the UK motor market? “Corrrect,” Fester “snaps back” monosyllabically, displaying, our sharp-eyed reporter detects, “a slight edge to what has so far been a cool head.” Cool, and presumably pleasingly rounded.

Hester detects a regrettable flaw in the nature of the contemporary business environment. The “sad bit” he confides “in the modern world” is “you normally have to do more with less people. We will have to do more with less people in the coming years,” he reveals ruefully, a delicate allusion, no doubt, to the inevitably of savage job cuts to come.

West likes what he’s hearing from the baby-faced one, noting that “his answers bend towards logic rather than emotion”, and applauds his success in balance sheet re-robustifying via a rights issue, dividend cutting, and flogging off businesses in the Baltics, Eastern Europe and Canada. “That,” he observes approvingly, “will easily cover the £200m hole” in Ireland.

But what about growth. “If RSA can’t grow,” the Times man stresses, “it’s not going to be a particularly exciting story for shareholders. “I’ve never thought that companies should set artificial growth targets,” Fester responds. As RSA gets better at doing things better, “we will start doing more business in areas where business needs to be done,” he clarifies. “What excites me,” he reveals, “is anything that makes us better at what we do.

Fester “may have come with a big name,” West concludes, “but there is no razzmatazz to the man”. In fact, the piece sums up, he’s kind of like Andy Haste, but “nicer”.

And with chubbier cheeks, presumably.

Happy Baby


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