Unlike his predecessor, Andrew Darfoor, the new head of Alexander Forbes, does not indulge in lofty talk of "higher purpose" or "thought leadership". Darfoor, who hails from Ghana, has also taken "cross sell" out of the Forbes lexicon, a radical shift as this was its main growth plank.
"There are a million customers in the group, mostly members of our pension funds," says Darfoor. "It might seem logical to sell retail products into this pool, but they might have these products already and we have to accept they have a choice."
Darfoor says it is essential to build up a client base entirely separate from the existing pool. He does not rule out setting up an agency force to do this.
Darfoor was born into a diplomatic family that moved frequently at the request of his father’s employer, the UN. He was schooled in England, and attended Queen Mary College at the University of London, where he received a BSc in economics. He later pursued an MBA at the Cranfield School of Management, also in the UK.
He rose through the ranks of Ernst & Young and then Credit Suisse as a business consultant, before spending five years up to 2012 at Old Mutual. As financial controller for North America he was given the unenviable job of turning the troubled Bermuda operation around, which Old Mutual had bought from Louis Shill at Sage without looking too carefully behind the label.
Darfoor turned the business around, which at its trough lost US$675m, to make $131m by bringing in less capital-intensive products that appealed to global distribution partners. He also cut operating costs by 40%.
He says a large part of his role at Forbes will be to improve operational efficiencies and, where appropriate, to cut costs.
Darfoor does not rule out, for example, looking at the cost of Forbes’s premises, now in the most expensive part of Sandton: he will watch the cost-to-income ratio like a hawk.
Before joining Forbes, Darfoor was CEO of Sun Life Financial, where he offered life and investment products to wealthy people in places such as Panama and Switzerland. The experience should prove invaluable to Forbes’s financial planning business, which has not always been at the cutting edge.
Darfoor says Alexander Forbes is already a strong brand across Africa and one of his main priorities will be to increase its share of earnings from the rest of Africa above today’s 6%. "But we can’t just parachute in a model from SA. The business has to be built from the ground up by people with intimate knowledge of the local market," he says.
Darfoor also hopes to leverage the relationship with global consulting group Mercer to help build international products that are relevant to local clients and also to provide more African solutions to Mercer’s multinational clients on the continent.
Darfoor plans to join as many industry bodies and committees as he can to contribute to wider debate on critical issues such as the future of retirement and financial inclusion. He believes Alexander Forbes’s retail business needs to spread wider than its current focus on the high-net-worth market.
"We need to be thought of as a business which can provide insight as well as excellent service. We won’t compete simply on price, though our pricing will always be realistic," he says.