UK: The man who makes a difference - Sandy Leitch, chief executive of Zurich Financial Services, has his ...

UK: The man who makes a difference - Sandy Leitch, chief executive of Zurich Financial Services, has his ... - The man who makes a difference - Sandy Leitch, chief executive of Zurich Financial Services, has his 'eyes on the hills and his feet on the gro

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The man who makes a difference - Sandy Leitch, chief executive of Zurich Financial Services, has his 'eyes on the hills and his feet on the ground'. It is this vision and pragmatism, in giving something back to the community, that sets him apart from other business leaders, and has earned him a very special accolade. Matthew Gwyther reports.

This year's HRH The Prince Of Wales Ambassador's Award, sponsored by Management Today, and part of the Business in the Community Awards for Excellence, was presented on July 15 to Sandy Leitch, chief executive of Zurich Financial Services. The award, which is now in its second year, was won by Granada's Charles Allen first time round.

Leitch is a man of humble origins. Born into a mining family in Dunfermline in Scotland, he was just two when his father died. The fact that Leitch Snr died with no other life insurance than his funeral money left his son with a sense of the precariousness of human existence. This was enforced when in the early '80s, with a wife and three young daughters, he had a lesion on the brain that left him paralysed down his left side, with impaired speech and vision. He has since completely recovered.

Besides realising the need for proper life insurance cover, these experiences have left him with a sense of responsibility to those less fortunate or successful in life. Colleagues at Zurich say he now probably devotes a quarter of his time to pro bono work. 'It's always the card in his back pocket,' says one. 'It is partly down to Sandy that the quality of volunteering work done by the business community in this country is second to none.'

Leitch joined Allied Dunbar at the time of its launch as Hambro Life back in 1971. Although he'd gained a university place at 16, he went straight into employment and went to London in the mid-'60s to take a job in the novel area of computers. At that time all policy records were held in huge leather-bound volumes and Leitch began the pathfinding job of taking the whole thing digital. By 21 he had become chief systems designer.

After 25 years with Hambro/Allied Dunbar, working in systems, operations, company cars, personnel, admin and catering, he became chief executive in 1996. He oversaw two mergers - with BAT Industries and with the Zurich group in 1998. The new group includes Allied Dunbar, Eagle Star and Threadneedle Asset Management and employs 60,000 staff worldwide.

A willingness to put something back into the community was written into Allied Dunbar's constitution from day one back in the '70s. In 1998 the company gave £2.2 million to charities (more than 1% of its pre-tax profit).

Leitch was one of two founder members of The Percent Club, which encourages companies to invest 1% of pre-tax profit in the community, and he has twice accepted the UK Award for Employee Volunteering on his company's behalf.

Following and improving on the American 'City Cares USA', Leitch has been a prime driver behind UK Cares. It provides a monthly calendar of opportunities for volunteers to offer their skills to other members of their communities in activities such as literacy training. A recent addition to his voluminous CV has been to assume the chair of the mental health charity SANE (Schizophrenia - A National Emergency).

Julia Cleverdon, the chief executive of Business in the Community, has known Leitch for 15 years. 'He hasn't just recently come to this kind of work and is the complete opposite of a gong-chasing type,' she says.

'He's always had this great driving energy. It's a tough business changing company cultures and persuading them to become involved. They want to know how it's going to hit their bottom line and Sandy knows exactly what the positive benefits are. He has the ability to dream but is essentially a very practical man, which is terribly important. His eyes may be on the hills but his feet stay on the ground. So he's been awarded the honour for vision combined with a vital practicality to get things done.'.

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