Interview: Maggie Craig - Another role that just added up nicely

A lot of people think of financial services in the round. They don't see the distinction between a bank and an insurance company

'IF YOU want something done, ask a busy person," so the saying goes. While it may sound a bit of a cliche, the phrase could have been written for Maggie Craig, the Association of British Insurers' first director of Scottish affairs. Last week she added that title to her other roles at the trade body which represents one of the UK's biggest industries.

Craig, who is also director of life and savings and director of consumer strategy, manages to find time to look after four dogs, four cats, a tankful of tropical fish, a few hens, several ducks, a Shetland pony and a goat at her home near Cumbernauld on the outskirts of Glasgow.

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Relaxing in the lounge of Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel in a sharp grey suit and regularly checking her Blackberry, the diminutive Craig stands out from the city's elderly ladies enjoying their afternoon tea. She jumps to her feet to do a twirl to show off her new red shoes. She chose them because black was rather boring, she says, before ordering a pot of tea and launching into an enthusiastic explanation of her new directorship at the ABI, which counts all the country's biggest insurers among its members.

Her role should give her more time in Scotland with her husband, whose job involves working with fish bugs at Stirling University's Institute of Aquaculture. It also allows her to see more of her three grown-up daughters, as well as her collection of animals.

When she took her original directorship with the trade body in 2007, she was adamant she would only accept if she could be based in Scotland, while spending two or three days a week in London at the ABI's headquarters.

"I didn't want to move. I really wanted the job but my life is in Scotland, my husband and girls are here," she explains, though she shares the complications faced by other regular long-distance commuters, not least in the wardrobe department. "I did have a ghastly moment a few weeks ago when I was in Edinburgh on a Friday morning for a business meeting and realised all my suits were in England. Things like that are a tad alarming. I had another dreadful moment where I was going to an event in London and my shoes were in Scotland. It's difficult enough for me to co-ordinate my wardrobe at all, never mind between different countries."

Last Wednesday night the ABI held its first parliamentary reception north of the border, attended by senior figures including Standard Life's chief executive Sir Sandy Crombie and Archie Kane, chief executive of Scottish Widows and a main board member for the new Lloyds Banking Group. However, Craig's debut event suffered a setback when guest speaker and Scottish finance secretary John Swinney, who had been embroiled in the budget debate at Holyrood, was unable to attend.

Craig says that having a director of Scottish affairs is a "natural evolution" for the ABI following devolution. "It's about recognising there are things happening under the devolved administration that are different, such as long-term care policy."

She admits that one of the industry's big challenges is to separate consumer views on the beleaguered banking sector from insurers whose balance sheets are stronger.

"A lot of people think of financial services in the round. They don't see the distinction between a bank and an insurance company and, in some ways, why should they. It would be stupid to deny that a company investing in the stock market isn't immune. But insurers are well-capitalised. Insurance is a long-term game. It's about wealth management and helping people make good financial decisions."

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The decline in banking has enhanced the role of the insurance sector in Scotland. It employs 25,000 and manages more than 700bn, but it is sharing the crisis of confidence that has hit the wider financial services sector. Failed banks, overpaid executives and suspect products have cast a shadow over the way money is managed, putting extra pressure on those trying to encourage a savings and investment culture.

Craig worked as pensions development manager with Scottish Equitable in between stints as head of public affairs and communication strategy and press spokesperson for rival firm Standard Life.

"One of the things we're working on is how to encourage people to save again. Some people have said to me, 'Why on earth are you doing that at a time like this?' My answer is that there isn't a better time to do it. We have to restore trust and confidence in savings," she explains.

She is well aware that this is a long-term issue and means overcoming some cultural barriers. "If you look at encouraging something like healthy eating, for example, there are simple messages, such as 'five-a-day' targets. Even if you don't manage to eat five a day, you know it's something you ought to be doing. There isn't an equivalent to get people to save and we need something like that."

One of her tasks this year will be to work with the Scottish Government on its proposed local income tax as it will impact tax relief on pension savings. She will also be dealing with Aegon UK chief executive, Otto Thoresen, as recommendations from his review of free, generic advice are rolled out to help educate lower income groups, in particular, on the need to save.

Getting consumers to put money away is even more difficult in the current economic climate. New figures out last week from some of the biggest insurers show that sales of life and pensions products have declined. Standard Life's worldwide life and pensions sales were down 5% last year to 16.1bn. Friends Provident's were down 11% to 1bn.

But the onus is not just on the ABI and the industry, according to Craig, who says a culture of "responsible borrowing" also has to be created, by improving financial capability through education at school. It is one of her passions. "If people understood more about even the most basic finance it would make life so much easier in the long run."

She considered teaching as a career, before opting for financial services after graduating from Glasgow University with a degree in English in 1979.

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During time out from her course, she secured a job with financial advice firm Noble Lowndes and came across the firm again when she was graduating and desperate for a job.

"I had thought about going into teaching but I couldn't afford another year of studying and teaching jobs weren't that easy to come by then."

She was attracted to the problem-solving part of financial services and the need to communicate complicated products and issues to consumers. .

She admits that the public have long memories, and past errors, such as the endowment and pensions mis-selling scandals, will linger.

She says: "It's very difficult to win back trust. There's no point in the industry pretending it hasn't made mistakes, but what it needs to do is learn from those mistakes."

Stakeholder pensions, launched in 2001, are another product that most in the industry would rather forget. Despite much promotion by the Government, their take-up was dismal. Craig is hoping personal accounts, being introduced in 2012 by the Government with the intention of making it easier for more of the population to save for their retirement, will be better received.

However, she admits they could run into problems. "We need to be sure there isn't a law of unintended consequences," she says. Her fear is that employers will put less money into personal accounts than they do into their existing schemes. An employer will pay a minimum of 3% of an individual's salary into a personal account, while many contribute around 7% into existing schemes. The obvious outcome could be a reduction in employee pension pots. "It's not difficult maths," says Craig. "It wouldn't do the industry any good if personal accounts don't work."

She is relishing the chance to help the industry make them work and spread the word about the benefits of insurance to consumers. That's as long as she doesn't develop some "ghastly form of split personality" from holding down three positions at the ABI while "playing the piano really badly" and "reading voraciously".