It’s not often you hear a chief executive say they want to make pensions sexy – and actually mean it.
But Nigel Wilson of Legal & General has a reputation for being passionate about his job and the industry he works in.
As David Buik, Panmure Gordon’s senior market commentator, and Simon French, our chief economist, found out, Wilson is a highly committed boss who isn’t afraid to state his mind.
“Businesses for too long stood on the sidelines, not really engaging with what’s been going on in the political world,”
Wilson says. “As a consequence of that we’ve ended up with a huge housing shortage in the UK. We have an energy policy that nobody’s enthused about whatsoever. We have a transportation policy where it resulted in inertia around where we build airport capacity.”
It sounds as though a future career in Parliament might be on the cards but Wilson insists there is “zero” chance of that happening. Instead, he is focused on his staff, his shareholders, and his customers.
Asked by Buik if he believes that the education process is adequate for teaching people that they can’t rely on their employers or their pension contributions in later life, Wilson replies: “We want to make pensions as sexy as housing. People in Britain have been preoccupied and obsessed with housing for the last 30 years. They now need to get obsessed and preoccupied with pensions because when they reach retirement they’re not going to live for another three, four, five years, they might live for 20, 30 or 40 years. To be frank, most people haven’t saved enough and they don’t know enough to generate income and to use their investments to create better value for themselves for the rest of their lives.”
Born in the North East of England and a self-confessed avid Newcastle United fan, Wilson took over the helm of Legal & General in 2012 having joined as group financial officer in 2009. Since assuming control, the share price of the 180-year-old financial services company has doubled.
Despite an extremely healthy 6.5 per cent dividend in a world of chronically low yields, Wilson admits that certain parts of the business could do better.
“Our asset-gathering businesses are on a tremendous roll at the moment, driven by long-term macro and demographic trends, particularly around pensions, an ageing population, and the need for welfare reform. There’s a relentless momentum behind that. But you’re right to point out that our insurance business has been moving slower than I would have liked for a number of years now. We are making this transformation from being an analogue, commission-heavy business into becoming a digital business and that’s a difficult transformation for any industry to make. And it’s particularly difficult in insurance where there is a lot of legacy IT.”
Meanwhile, there are other factors to take into account, not least the UK vote to leave the European Union. According to Buik, the Legal & General chief exec seems upbeat about Brexit, provided the right kind of investment comes in. Is that a fair assessment?
Wilson says: “That’s a very fair analogy. The UK remains a great place to invest…what we don’t have is enough economic growth. We’ve got a national infrastructure plan with £450 billion of projects identified of which we seem to have done about £1 billion so far which is just pathetic. So there’s been a lot of intent and a lot of talk but not much action. But there’s so much more that can be done.”
He adds: “We’re in the midst of a very exciting technological revolution and Britain has a huge role to play in that. We have some of the finest universities in the world which are producing great science. We’ve never figured out how to monetise them, to put real money and real capital behind the cities outside of London, the universities across the UK, and really take the start-ups, which we are world leaders in, and make them scale-ups, like the Americans have already done and like the Chinese are increasingly doing. So I’m very optimistic about the UK and developing a ‘can-do’ attitude.”
Back to Legal & General. Buik wonders if the company will pursue acquisitions or is it wedded to organic growth?
“Primarily organic growth is the way forward,” Wilson says. “But if there are particular situations where we can accelerate that growth through making bold acquisitions then of course I would be supportive of doing that if it’s in the interests of shareholders.”