AS I SEE IT: The markets need more assurances that the re-branded company is making progress, writes TERRY MURDEN
No one could accuse Stephen Bird of sitting on his hands since taking over as CEO at Standard Life Aberdeen, or what we must now call Abrdn. Businesses have been sold, and he’s pushed through that questionable rebrand, all in the name of simplifying and refocusing the company. He’s also slowed the outflow of assets which at one point post-merger were alarmingly high. But even with all this restructuring there remain questions about the final destination.
Net withdrawals were just £1.9bn in the first six months of 2021, a trend that he was keen to stress as he presented the first half-year figures since the company’s change of name. Most of what has been lost is low margin, and Bird says the investments coming in are more valuable to the group. He declared that progress is being made, though the markets begged to differ, marking the shares down 2.3% at the close.
Inevitably, those tuning in for yesterday’s media conference call wanted to know how the new name had been received. The response had been “phenomenal”, said the CEO. Colleagues, clients and even Andy Briggs at Phoenix (who bought the Standard Life brand) had nothing but praise for it. Of course, there was never any likelihood that Bird would cast any doubt on the switch. After all, it won’t have been a cheap exercise and he’d be testing the patience of long-suffering shareholders if he’d decided it had been a bad idea.
Bird said it had brought the teams together and the company will be investing in a single brand instead of five. If it produces the desired end result then maybe it will prove its worth. In the meantime, analysts and commentators are still having some fun with the vowel-free name.
With the board aiming to simplify the business it seems an odd decision to drop a historic brand in favour of a tongue-twister that has produced its own complications, not least over how to pronounce it, and brought ridicule on the company, whatever the CEO may say about its widespread acceptance. It could yet turn out to be a burden rather than a benefit, and an unnecessary distraction in the company’s growth plans.
Sale of growth businesses
There has been a flurry of acquisition activity among Scottish growth firms. Sarn Technologies, Smarter Grid Solutions and Vegware are among those that have been snapped up in the past few days alone.
Some see the sale of businesses as a negative for the economy, and certainly the loss of independence can be a shame if all it means is control and decision making moving out of the country, and a streamlining of jobs and operational sites.
However, in most cases the sale of a business is a good thing, bringing greater stability, new sources of capital, broader management experience and more extensive distribution channels, all of which helps them grow into a bigger business.
At the very least, the flow of deals suggests that the quality of startup and growth businesses being created in Scotland is being noticed and that they represent good value.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business