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Insurer Aviva (LSE: AV) at the top of the ranking FTSE100 rise last Thursday — up 2.7% on the release of its annual results.
For much of the 21st century, I didn’t see this company as a particularly strong candidate for long-term investment. However, my perspective changed drastically a few years ago.
Today I’d like to talk to you about what changed my mind, how Aviva has performed since then, and why I think the company might just be a leopard that changed its spots.
Aviva was created by a series of mergers in the UK insurance market around the turn of the century. In 1998, Commercial Union and General Accident merged to form CGU. And in 2000 CGU merged with Norwich Union to form CGNU – which later changed its name to Aviva in 2002.
In 2012, the company cut its dividend three times. He is currently on his fifth CEO and has also had two periods under two different presidents who took on leadership roles when the company did not have a CEO.
Expansions into new business areas and geographies by one CEO have sometimes been undone by another. For example, the RAC breakdown business was bought for £1.1 billion in 2005 and sold for £1 billion in 2011. And an American business bought for $2.9 billion in 2006 was sold for $1.8 billion in 2012.
As record dividends, board turnover and strategic tinkering suggest, Aviva has been a company that has struggled to deliver consistent returns to investors.
On July 6, 2020, Aviva announced that CEO Maurice Tulloch had stepped down due to family health reasons and was appointing Amanda Blanc as its new CEO effective immediately.
I found Blanc’s CV impressive. She had extensive experience in the insurance industry, including nine years in various management positions with Commercial Union, and 11 years in two stints with AXAfrom Regional Director to Group CEO AXA UK & Ireland.
Having spent most of his career working for Aviva’s competitors, I thought Blanche would have a pretty good idea of the group’s strengths and weaknesses.
Moreover, after being named non-executive director of Aviva in early 2020, she had had six months to see the company from the inside before Tulloch’s sudden and unexpected departure.
On paper, Blanc seemed to have excellent credentials to improve Aviva’s performance. But what really attracted me was his first presentation to City analysts. It was Aviva’s half-year results day in August, just four weeks after she became CEO.
There was not to be an extended strategic review. She was very clear about how she wanted to move Aviva forward, and her strategy was uncomplicated.
Blanc would focus his investments on Aviva’s market-leading positions in the UK, Ireland and Canada. Selling businesses in Europe and Asia, if they weren’t able to generate strong returns on investment. And transform business execution, financial strength and shareholder returns.
And she was going to do it to the beat.
I wrote at the time that I hadn’t been so impressed with a first introduction from a new Footsie CEO since Dave Lewis debuted as the new Tesco boss in 2014. And let me just say that I spend far too many hours a week attending company presentations and conference calls (yes, I’m so sad about the stock market!) to be easily impressed.
Having set up his shop, White put his money where his mouth was. She bought £1million worth of Aviva shares on the market at a price of 308p.
Looking back, I regret not having acted on my good impression and immediately following his example. But even I was surprised by the speed and poise with which she transformed the business.
In 18 months, she sold eight non-essential businesses for big bucks. The £7.5bn proceeds were used to strengthen Aviva’s balance sheet, returning £3.75bn of capital to shareholders, with an additional £1bn return through a program share buyback.
The company entered 2023 with a commitment to deliver attractive and sustainable dividends. The current yield is currently 7.3%.
Its capital framework generates plenty of excess cash to reinvest in the business, disciplined targeted acquisitions in its priority growth areas and incremental returns for shareholders. The board has just launched a new share buyback program of up to £300m.
There’s no guarantee, but after two decades of inconsistent performance for investors, I think Aviva might just be a leopard that changed places under Blanc’s shrewd leadership.