Iain Williamson. Picture: FINANCIAL TIMES
Iain Williamson. Picture: FINANCIAL TIMES

After almost 14 months in limbo, Old Mutual has, in Iain Williamson, finally made what is widely regarded as the safe choice as CEO.

Williamson has been acting in the post since Peter Moyo’s sudden suspension in May 2019, and his subsequent dismissal from the top job.

It has been a long process, but the appointment was held up by Moyo’s legal campaign to be reinstated, and technically Moyo might still have more options.

Williamson, who turned 50 in May, has been part of the Mutual family since he was 18, when he was awarded an actuarial bursary. He worked for the fledgling mass market group scheme business (now the largest and most profitable part of the company) during his university vacations.

And he worked in both the corporate and individual life businesses. He was part of the team that prepared Old Mutual for demutualisation in 1999, and then spent four years in the new Old Mutual global headquarters in Mayfair, London.

"I was an internal analyst, valuing the company itself and the companies we planned to acquire," he tells the FM.

In London, Williamson developed his passion for cycling. "I hated the Underground so I arranged with the group treasurer, Don Hope, to cycle to work together." When he went back to Cape Town he became finance actuary for the retail affluent division (as individual life was renamed) and was later appointed its CFO.

He then followed his boss Ralph Mupita to take the CFO post at Old Mutual Emerging Markets, which later became the separately listed Old Mutual Ltd. Williamson moved to Joburg for seven years when the Old Mutual executive relocated to Sandton but moved back in 2018 when he was appointed COO. "My oldest daughter is going into matric next year so we won’t be moving up to Gauteng permanently just yet." He also has to consider his triplets, who are in grade 5.

The entire executive team are now working from home because of the Covid-19 epidemic.

"We normally have 10,000 people coming to work in our Pinelands [Cape Town] and Sandton campuses. At the height of the lockdown, it fell to 200 and even now it is only about 1,000."

Williamson is leading the company at a critical time. He says it is moving from a stabilisation phase into a transition phase, but it is still some way off the "reimagine" phase when crisis management makes way for real strategic change.

"We still have a life insurance joint venture in China and its experience is that while manufacturing is at full throttle, consumer spending is still at 70% of pre-virus levels."

Denker Capital portfolio manager Jan Meintjes says the appointment removes some uncertainty, and Williamson’s operational strengths would have counted in his favour in the Covid-19 environment.

"Normally an outsider taking a fresh look at the business would have been beneficial, but radical changes are dangerous right now."

Williamson says he is on board with the "eight battlegrounds" strategy introduced by Moyo, some of which has already been delivered, such as the R1bn reduction in overall costs. "It has become clear over the past few months that we need to be much more digitally enabled and connect with customers on their terms."

His biggest worry in the short term is that retail customers who can’t afford to keep up their premiums will allow policies to lapse.

Williamson says Old Mutual still has an agency force and a branch footprint substantially bigger than those of archrival Sanlam. It also has a larger asset manager, especially in the private equity and infrastructure space.

Neelash Hansjee, portfolio manager at Old Mutual Equities, says the group needs a boss who can defend its strong positions in employee benefits and the mass market, and also regain share in the middle market. "The share is cheap and underestimates the group’s potential."

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