Jackie Hunt CFO Standard Life

Few people will tell you frankly -- and many would struggle to even acknowledge - their regrets, weaknesses or strengths, especially those sitting on the executive boards of the UK's top companies. But then Jackie Hunt, chief financial officer of FTSE 100 insurer Standard Life, is an exception in many senses.

One of her professional regrets she candidly tells CFO World is that she never gained experience outside the finance function. For a women who is one of only nine female CFOs in the FTSE 100 it's hard to reconcile that a lack of a stint in operations or marketing has held her back, but she so firmly believes in the experience that it forms a critical part of the company's talent development programme for finance staff launched 18 months ago.

"I didn't go it and regret it. I actively transfer people out of finance and second them," Hunt says.

Her resolve on this point is explicit. One of the failings she recognises in those in finance is their distance from customers. As a business that prides itself on customer service and staff development Hunt says it's vital for Standard Life to ensure finance teams gain some experience in customer-facing functions.

"It's so easy for the finance function to never come into contact with customers," she says.

Another reason for encouraging secondments outside of the finance department is to broaden individual's horizons not just professionally but personally as well. "Finance people are genuinely nice people but the flip side of that is that they don't like confrontation." Again, Hunt doesn't strike you as someone who's afraid of confrontation.

As a foreigner on these shores -- she's South African -- the finance chief also promotes the benefits of overseas experience and actively encourages a foreign secondment among her 1,300-strong global finance team. And the earlier the better she says.

"We encourage people to get experiences in new markets and new geographies early in their career. It's important to learn cultural sensitivities and self-awareness. And an ability to realise that there are other points of view.

"We say early for pragmatic reasons because as people get older their work life balance is more difficult and they have more commitments," she adds.

As for her strengths, she is happy to promote them and urges women to do the same. Explaining the lack of female CFOs among FTSE companies, Hunt says it's down to her willingness to take risks where others may have been more cautious. And her decision to highlight her strengths -- something she learnt the value of early in her career.

"What I've tended to do is be braver about choices. I have taken moves that I've had people that knew me call up and say 'why are you doing that?' There's risk associated with it. But I do think you need to take chances in your career. That's maybe one of the differentiators," she says.

Hunt points to a growing body of research that suggests "if you ask a man to do a job and he can do 80 percent of it and he'll say 'yes I can do it', but if you ask a woman the same thing and she can do 80 percent, she'll talk about the 20 percent she can't do. And it's culturally consistent. It's a female issue."

Aware of this failing in women in general, she has always been conscious to focus on her abilities rather than her failings. That said, she's keenly away of her limitations. "It's not that I'm not thinking about the things I can't do, but I'm focusing on my strengths rather than my weaknesses."

She also put her success down to people taking a gamble on her. "There's no question that some people have taken chances on me and there's no question that if it hadn't worked they would have come up for criticism that they probably wouldn't have come under had I frankly been male."

Of the current push to hire more women to British boardroom, she is highly supportive but she is fervently against quotas. What does however worry Hunt is that the current debate has been "skewed too much" to getting more women on boards, when the "real issue" is the lack of pipeline of women coming through.

"I worry that we'll win the battle and frankly lose the war. And what we'll see is diverse boards but an increasing lack of diversity at the executive and senior management levels of corporates," she says.

These issues, although a concern for her, are less pressing than Hunt's central focus over the past few years -- the stewardship of Standard Life. As CFO, Hunt has had to not only manage the legacy of her boss -- Hunt is CEO David Nish's successor - but help implement far-reaching changes at a time of great economic upheaval and uncertainty.

Hunt joined Standard Life in 2009. By the following year the board agreed a three-year transformation programme which involved her taking a pivotal role in helping design the strategy and "taking along" all stakeholders with that change of direction. As chairman of the company's strategic investment committee it falls to Hunt to make sure investments are consistent with the strategy and that they meet the financial goals.

"I'm involved in all investor relations. I front that alongside the CEO and I don't think you can differentiate the role that I and finance play from the role that business play more generally, because we are more integrated."

Prior to Hunt's arrival the FTSE 100 life insurer had been "derisking" the business and it is a policy which has picked up momentum under Hunt. The company has moved away from capital-heavy products where Standard Life's balance sheet is "put on the line" to what she calls "capital-lite" products like unit-linked contracts -- "the sort of products that have little risk to us", she explains.

In fact, apart from the Canadian arm of the business, Hunt says "we are no longer a risk business".

"We've always been quite clear in terms of shareholders assets that we don't have a very aggressive risk appetite at all," she clarifies.

Back in 2009 Standard Life sold off its bank to Barclays for £226 million. Although profitable the 10-year-old bank was wholesale funded by about 70 percent and so when the credit crisis started in 2008 the insurer had to keep so much liquid asset to support potentially adverse impacts on the bank that it was managing a business that "was more like something you see on the high street. And that doesn't play to our skillset", she says.

The following year the insurer also sold its healthcare business for £138 million to the South African group Discovery Holdings. "Great business, but it's a market where you need the scale to negotiate with private healthcare providers. We either had to double up the stake in that or accept that it was a consolidating market and for the economics we needed to sell out."

As for the euro crisis, Hunt says the business didn't waste any time in acting to minimise exposure to the euro. "From a primary perspective there's no real exposure. None of our other businesses operate in any exposed areas other than a small Irish business which is well funded."

Apart from making sure that the assets that back various pools of liabilities aren't exposed into the euro zone, the CFO has also put caps on some of the geographic areas "where we've said we don't want exposure, and we've also put caps on certain institutions where we have a view about their credibility".

"We've done a lot to make sure we are well protected against what can happen in the euro zone," she reiterates.

Despite the economic uncertainty, Standard Life's performance in the first nine months of the year has been robust and at the last trading update in November Nish said the company remained "on track to transform the operational and financial performance of the group".

In its third quarter trading statement the company reported group assets under administration of £191.1 billion, down 2.9 percent. But long-term savings new business sales were up 10 percent to £15.5 billion "after broadly maintained sales in the quarter".

"If you look at the numbers we last published ... We had very strong growth in the first half of the year and a little more muted in the third quarter, but when you look at our relative performance versus markets that had slowed down significantly then we are performing strongly," says Hunt.

In its full year trading statement published on 13 March the insurer reported a 28 percent rise in annual operating profit of £544 million, well ahead of forecasts of £476 million. The performance was driven by strong growth in its Canadian business, where profit rose 70 percent. Its shares rose 2.7 percent to 243.9p, spreading a rally of about 16 percent since the beginning of the year.

To counter market conditions and low consumer confidence without cutting prices to secure new contracts what Standard Life has chosen to do is focus on existing customers. "The majority of flows we get will come off existing schemes where you have people who'll contribute more and that's where we've turned our focus. As long as new business is a bit slower because of the economic conditions we'll focus on existing business and ... make return off the back of that."

Hunt and her fellow board members are making sure the 188-year old business doesn't go the way of other venerated and well-established financial institutions in this prolonged financial crisis. And it is this point she wishes to emphasis, that business leaders are about building and nurturing sustainable companies that last hundreds of years despite the current public perception that business is about a fast buck.

The current anti-business sentiment spreading from politicians and the public "troubles" her. "It started as a lack of trust from the banking crisis and it does seem to have spread beyond that. I absolutely fundamentally believe that there's been no other thing that has created greater social good than the whole concept of enterprise. It's vital that we do amend this perception and turn around this sense.

She's clear that Standard Life embeds strong values into its business "more than anywhere I've work", but whether others will follow the strict governance and transparent pay structures the business applies "remains to be seen".

For now however Hunt can only influence the business she helps run, but if her boldness is a sign of the times and her advice heeded by women then we can only hope to see more women heading to the executive board as well as filling non-executive roles.

This article originally appeared in CIO UK sister title CFO World