2020 Preliminary Results: chief executive's statement

RSA Group


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"COVID-19 has blighted the world in so many ways, from health to economics and beyond. All those badly affected deserve our sincere sympathies and understanding. For our own part, RSA has prioritised sustaining customer service during these difficult times."

This is likely to be my last update, assuming the takeover bid by Intact/Tryg completes as expected in the coming months. It therefore seems appropriate to offer something of a retrospective view of the changes at RSA since I joined in 2014 and what they have delivered.

But first it is right to recognise the context of 2020, and indeed the start of 2021. COVID-19 has blighted the world in so many ways, from health to economics and beyond. All those badly affected deserve our sincere sympathies and understanding. For our own part, RSA has prioritised sustaining customer service during these difficult times. In addition to paying out claims of some £4.6bn for business as usual, COVID-19 related claims of over £250m have been provided for, on top of a range of other customer support measures from premium rebates to bill forbearance and charitable donations. 

In 2020 RSA produced excellent underlying profits, record underwriting results and a return on tangible equity of 18.2%1, above the top end of the targeted range and exceptional for a capital intensive financial institution. This was our fourth record underwriting result in 5 years. Many companies in our industry and elsewhere fared worse and, like them, RSA’s results had to be achieved despite a drag on profits from COVID-19 as well as coping with the many other severe challenges it posed - to capital and operations, and most especially to customer service. RSA’s results for 2020 are a remarkable achievement, a reflection of 7 years of business building and in turn were the foundation for showcasing the attractiveness of RSA’s business in discussions with Intact and Tryg.

As noted above, the other major feature of 2020 for RSA was the all cash takeover bid we negotiated, valuing our Company at a 52% premium over the undisturbed share price. The high value placed on our business was testimony to its strength and attractiveness. We were not looking to sell and RSA’s future was bright as an independent company. But in a liberal market based economy, shareholder value is rightly prized, forming the basis as it does of savings and pension returns and a well functioning economy. There is no doubt this bid offers our shareholders exceptional value. But the future for other stakeholders is also safeguarded. Our businesses will live on with their new owners, our people will have the opportunity of great careers and our customers will continue to be serviced well. 

History and Inheritance

RSA can trace its history back 300 years to the inception of the insurance industry after the Great Fire of London, though today’s company is the product of many mergers and acquisitions since that time. This proud history gave us a powerful business franchise with customer loyalty, goodwill and recognition going back decades. It also brought us expert staff, with longevity, and an ethos prizing customer service and teamwork. These business assets lie at the heart of what we have been able to accomplish. 

However, RSA in early 2014 also had a legacy of key weaknesses - in capital, in performance, in management, in costs and capability and in a strategy that had not evolved to deal with modern realities. Some of these weaknesses will take still more years to completely eliminate. However, during 2014/15 a fundamental restructuring of the company set right much that was failing, put RSA on a stronger footing and allowed a second phase to begin, aiming not at rescue, but at business outperformance.

What did we do?

We implemented a focused strategy to divest underperforming or ill suited business and concentrate all our resources on our strongest franchises which collectively had coherence and complementarity. We restored capital and risk profile to undoubted strength. We made extensive management changes and began to implement a harder driving performance culture married to the positives of the historic legacy. We cut costs substantially to recognise the essential nature of competitiveness in a mature industry without patents. And we embarked on a comprehensive rebuilding of capabilities across the company, centred on the effective service of customers.

Phase two, the quest for “best in class performance”

With success in restoring RSA to robust health, the mission was expanded to seek excellence, or “best in class” performance as we labelled it. 2016-20 have been spent in pursuit of that mission. This has involved unswerving focus on improving underwriting disciplines, cost efficiency, capability modernisation through technology and ways of working and, at its heart, a focus on winning with and for customers in those areas we could be strong. And enabling all these efforts was continued strategic discipline and performance focus and a drive to make both a permanent part of the RSA culture. 

2020 results point to considerable success from these efforts. In all our overseas businesses, which constitute 80% or more of the Group’s value, we have achieved best in class results. But “best in class” is a mission more than a destination. Our competitors will keep improving, and we must also to sustain the gains so painfully won. Even in the UK, our most difficult market, performance is much improved (at least ex covid impacts), and we can see our way to the targeted results within the coming few years. 

Business resilience 

2020 has shown so well the vital nature of business resilience, a lesson especially relevant in financial services where you are selling a promise to customers to be there when their need arises.

RSA has shown it learnt this lesson. It’s not just about strong capital. It’s also about strong operations and effective risk management. But above all it’s about the ability to absorb blows, externally or internally generated, and to come back effectively. No business can be perfect. Mistakes will occur, weaknesses be uncovered and the unexpected transpire. Our record since 2014 has blemishes. We saw that in excessive exposure to natural catastrophes in 2018. And perhaps in our part of the industrywide wording ambiguities that left some customers uncertain of how policies responded to COVID-19, a position now addressed in the UK by the Supreme Court verdict. But we have and will continue to take the results of weaknesses and mistakes head on, to put things right and to build back stronger.

People, culture and customers

All businesses need the right tools, whether technology, capital, expertise etc. But it’s humans that wield those tools and must be accountable for what is made with them. And in particular its leadership. In most businesses the workforce are hard working, dedicated and want their company to succeed.  But how well their efforts and talents are aimed and organised, and whether the tools they need are provided, these are the tasks of leadership. And business outcomes so often reflect the effectiveness or otherwise of leadership. 

RSA’s leadership, our top 100, has changed immensely in recent years, in lineup, in attitudes and in effectiveness. Our accomplishments are a team tribute to this group of people. And for that I am immensely grateful.

But truism as it is, companies are nothing without their ability to satisfy customer needs. In a changing world the basics of need often change slowly, though expectations on how customers are served and through what channels increase and change rather faster. This is no more so than in financial services. RSA has prioritised serving customers well throughout its history. Today the urge is no less strong and high levels of digital investment and investment in skills support more modern delivery. The pandemic has required us to do all this whilst suddenly shifting to home working. We met this challenge well. However, there is always more we aspire to do and plenty of room to improve. That is a challenge that will never subside.

Thank you

Thank you to our customers for their trust which is the lifeblood that motivates our Company. Thank you to our forebears for the inheritance of RSA. Thank you to the Board for constant support and constructive challenge. Thank you to an amazing Chairman, the best I have worked with. Thank you to all my colleagues. Together we achieved a lot. And thank you to our shareholders without whose encouragement and support the urge to achieve would have been much weaker. 

RSA’s journey is not over. We have momentum into 2021. I’m confident we will do well up to when ownership changes and beyond, and in the unlikely event the bid does not complete, the future will be bright nevertheless.


Stephen Hester

Group Chief Executive

25 February 2021


1 Excluding UK&I exit portfolios, refer to pages 33 to 43 for further information