At the right hand of the CEO sits Christopher Bale. He's no oil painting - tall, thin and with that sallow look that comes to many Englishmen in middle age. Dress and demeanor are unremarkable too: dark suits with the odd pinstripe and sober ties. Chris, as he likes to be known, is the finance director at Union Alliance. But his Everyman appearance conceals one of the steeliest reputations in the FTSE.
No mere bean-counter, Bale is confidant and consigliere to the CEO, keeper of the firm's darkest secrets, hatcher of its murkiest plots and hatchet man extraordinaire. It is largely due to his peculiar talents that over the past four years, UA has seen a 20% rise in its share price (and a 40% drop in its headcount) and kept hold of its Investor in People award.
Not for nothing is UA known as 'The bank that likes to say "Your job's gone to Bangalore".' Bale has leapt gazelle-like from business to business wielding the axe and leaving profitable - if eviscerated - concerns in his wake.
There was little in the young Bale to foreshadow the bean-counting butcher of today. At school, he was studious, uninterested in his fellow pupils; his ambition, 'something financial'. He achieved impressive A-levels and, to his parents' chagrin, chose the LSE over Cambridge. At college, he made an effort to integrate and flirted briefly with communism.
This ended when he started dating Carol McKay, a leading light in the Young Conservatives.
Suitably incentivised, Bale went from red to blue, pushing his world view in a direction that a few years later came to be called Thatcherite.
In his last year at LSE, Bale was approached by the intelligence service, but declined, taking a job with one of the big accountancy firms. His peers joked that his epitaph would read 'Communist, Conservative, Spy, Accountant'.
Bale's profession may have been grey, but he was red in tooth and claw, if not in political stripe. Leaving Touche, Ross freshly chartered, his first job involved restructuring a heavily unionised steel fabricator, Jones & Harding: a 26-year-old bent on sacking half a workforce twice his age. In fact, Bale failed to downsize J&H, but the union's intransigence meant the firm went bust, allowing him to claim some sort of victory.
The hatred of the left made him a darling of the right, and soon he came to the attention of the new Tory leader, one Margaret Thatcher. She doted on this thrusting young right-winger, and a gag in Conservative circles was that Bale had an ideal woman in Carol and an ideological woman in Margaret. He married the former and the latter spoke at their wedding.
He moved on to DBB Household, where, depending on your viewpoint, he either made a venerable old company competitive again or deprived several Midlands communities of their livelihoods. At any rate, his reward was to be made a government adviser to the coal industry, where he got to repeat his work on a grander scale.
His later career has been more of the same: back in the private sector, he resolved not to rest while there was dead wood standing. He remains a bogeyman for the old left, but has been invited to Number 10 by the ideologically unencumbered present incumbent. Mischief-makers keep trying to get him alone in a room with John Prescott.
Has age mellowed him? Not a bit: he still polarises opinion. At UA, if you hate Bale, now is the time to bail out. The CEO is set to retire and it looks like Chris will have finally downsized his way to the top.
Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental
Bale a baleful life 1952 Born 12 December, Bristol. Educated: Clifton Grammar School, LSE 1973 Trainee accountant, Touche, Ross & Co 1976 Finance controller, manufacturing, at Jones & Harding 1979 Head of cost control, DBB Household 1982 Government special adviser for the coal industry 1987 Head of finance, Cox Computing 1992 Deputy head of finance, Drysdale Building Society 1997 Finance director, Eastern Provident plc 2001 Finance director, Union Alliance plc 2006 CEO, Union Alliance plc