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Stephen Bird: We’ll build on our Granite City legacy

Stephen Bird
Stephen Bird

Standard Life Aberdeen (SLA) aims to build on the “legacy” of its Granite City heritage in key Asian investment markets, boss Stephen Bird said yesterday.

Mr Bird, who took over as chief executive of the Scottish financial services giant last September, added he wanted to make Aberdeen Asset Management (AAM) co-founder and former chief executive Martin Gilbert proud as Edinburgh-based SLA places a “refreshed focus” on Asia.

AAM completed a merger with Standard Life, creating SLA, in 2017. The enlarged business inherited a strong Asia-focused investment portfolio, built up under AAM stalwart Hugh Young, who is now chairman of SLA’s business in the region.

Speaking after SLA posted annual results reflecting “momentum” for the company during 2020, Mr Bird said the world’s centre of gravity in economic terms was moving east.

He added: “It’s now incumbent on us to build on the Aberdeen legacy in the region – the name is well known there – and get ourselves back to the strength we’ve had in the past.

“I’ve already told Martin Gilbert it’s my mission to make him very proud.”

Mr Gilbert quit SLA last autumn after spells as co-chief executive and vice-chairman of the enlarged group.

Mr Bird was tight-lipped about the new name that will be rolled out across all of SLA’s brands following the sale of its insurance arm and subsequently the Standard Life moniker to Pheonix Group.

But he revealed it would “capture the history and heritage” of the company. Asked specifically if it would continue to reflect the group’s north-east heritage, he said: “Watch this space.”

He also revealed details of an asset sale that was completed some hours after yesterday morning’s results announcement to the stock market.

SLA has sold financial advice platform Parmenion to private equity firm Preservation Capital Partners in a £102 million deal, boosting the coffers after “encouraging progress” in 2020.

The company reported adjusted pre-tax profits of £487m, down from £584m in 2019, which SLA said largely reflected a 12.8% drop in fee-based revenue to £1.425 billion. The 2020 revenue performance was impacted by cash “outflows” the year before.

Assets under management (AuM) would have grown in value without a £25.9bn tranche withdrawal from Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) – part of a phased exit by LBG – which ultimately left the total £10bn lower at £534.6bn.

Mr Bird highlighted a strong AuM investment performance, with 66% of funds ahead of the benchmark over three years and 71% beating the one-year measure.

SLA outlined strategic priorities of growth in Asia, UK adviser and consumer markets, and solutions/responsible investing, alongside a broader goal of simplifying the business and making it relevant.

Mr Bird said: “As futurists, we need to be incredibly curious about the changing world around us.

“Huge change is taking place in the world right now – technological, environmental and social changes are disrupting companies and industries. Behaviour and society is changing quickly. All of these changes impact our clients and their investment needs.

“We are actively and constantly evaluating these trends and understanding what they mean for our clients and our business model – our capabilities must and will keep pace with these changes.”

A “reset point” had been created for the business, he said, adding: “I’m excited about what’s to come.”

John Moore, senior investment manager at wealth manager Brewin Dolphin, said: “Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Standard Life Aberdeen was undergoing a significant transition – not an easy place going into a crisis.

“Nevertheless, the investment house is beginning to see the benefits of making tough decisions and is emerging on the other side in a stronger position than it was.

“Through disposals and simplification of its business, Standard Life Aberdeen is sitting on a very strong surplus capital position.

“There is still work to do, but Standard Life Aberdeen appears to be building solid foundations for the future.”