Thursday, January 8, 2009

(No.5) Hanging by a thread with Marcus Aurelius

As I depart the life insurance industry after several decades I derive wry amusement from recalling that as a life company employee (as well as in my private, spare time role as an editor, writer and critic) I have been threatened occasionally with termination of employment as well as with libel action by several life insurance company CEOs. These threats related to my publicly expressed views on industry issues and companies, views that in one way or another infringed corporate bans on unlicensed expression or offended some senior executive's delicate sensibility. I have a letter somewhere written in the late 1970s by a CEO warning me that my job was hanging by a thread. That thread turned out to have quite remarkable tensile strength.

If my published transgressions against corporate propriety escaped notice by those who fancied they exerted authority over me I could always count on at least a few of those who -- yesterday -- told me of their great admiration for my frank expression of views to raise -- today -- with senior management my crimes and misdemeanors.  Disappointing behaviour one may say. Perhaps, but not all that surprising: in order to stab someone in the back it is first necessary to get behind him.

It still strikes me as beyond bizarre that for the past several years my employer has been Sun Life, a good company in a number of respects but one which I regularly criticized editorially beginning in 1978 in the pages of the  Canadian Journal of Life Insurance. Had anyone asked me then how likely it was that I would ever see a takeover of Mutual Life [my then employer] by Sun Life [then also a mutual company] and that if such an unlikely event were to occur that I would survive as an employee of Sun Life, I would have put the odds about the same as those of Her Majesty The Queen appointing me Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps,after sober second thought, I would have predicted the odds even higher against this outcome since my temperament has tended to push me towards the view expressed by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: the object of life is not be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the unbalanced. 

Before joining the life insurance business I had earned 3 university degrees in history, training which (among other advantages) taught me the importance of learning from the past in order to help inform one's understanding of the present as well as some possible features of the future. Learning from the past is not something I have observed as a common trait among industry executives.

One of the most valuable parts of my industry education came from working in the field as financial planner with agents of the Mutual Life of Canada (later know as Clarica Life), Canada's first and best mutual life insurance company and one which had long maintained its own high quality career agency distribution system for its individual policies. Much later I witnessed that system begin to decline after senior management persuaded the company's board to demutualize, a change announced in Dec 1997 but preceded by the beginning of an ongoing obsession with ROE measures. 

Latterly insufficient support was provided for the (now) Clarica Life career system while its inflation in size was sought through rapid expansion, the purpose of which so far as I could tell being to enhance its appeal to potential buyers of Clarica. Success in this was achieved in Dec 2001 when Sun Life said it was buying Clarica Life.

When I heard this news I almost expected to hear the ringing of my phone signalling an overseas call from Buckingham Palace.