UK: Profile - Sir Mark Weinberg.

UK: Profile - Sir Mark Weinberg. - The life assurance tycoon reveals his philanthropic side to Chris Blackhurst.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The life assurance tycoon reveals his philanthropic side to Chris Blackhurst.

Hobbies: "Not a lot, funnily enough. I ride and play tennis occasionally. I have a boat in Majorca that I fiddle around with. I like computers. My wife is teaching me to be a gardener."

Last book read: "I've found over the last couple of years that I read less than I should. I'm catching up with my children who encouraged me to read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I'm a voracious reader of magazines."

Last film seen: "Can't remember - something about somebody in Ireland going to America and ending up in Oklahoma."

Favourite music: "Classical, quite a lot of opera - thanks to mv wife."

Politics: "Conservative with a small 'c'. I'm wet on social issues, dry on economic ones."

Heroes: "Can't think. If you asked me who was an influence I would say Mrs Thatcher. She made an enormous difference to Britain. From inheriting a country with a mind set like Britain had in 1979 she wrought miracles."

There are two sides to Sir Mark Weinberg. There is Mark One: senior statesman of the life assurance industry, who, with his three companies - Abbey Life, Hambro Life and Allied Dunbar - was closely identified with ushering in hard-sell and aggressive marketing techniques. Mark One is rich and ambitious, working with his close friend, Jacob Rothschild to make even more money from their latest business venture - J Rothschild Assurance. Then there is Weinberg, Mark Two - in many ways, a more interesting figure. This is the campaigner urging companies to donate a proportion of their profits to charity, a tireless worker for good causes, a large personal charitable donor.

Without Mark One there would not be Mark Two. Business success has given him the money and the opportunity to help others. Unfortunately, though, Mark Two remains hidden. Natural modesty, the fear of being seen to seek publicity from the plight of others, a desire to promote his new company and an expectation that anyway, all the interviewer wants to talk about is life insurance, means Weinberg, the philanthropist, tends to be overshadowed by Weinberg, the archetypal tycoon.

We meet in his office at Spencer House, in London's St James's. J Rothschild Assurance has its head office at Cirencester but its chief prefers to work from what is effectively Jacob Rothschild's house cum corporate headquarters. Once the home of Earl Spencer, the Palladian mansion was falling into disrepair until it was rescued by Lord Rothschild. Today, after millions of pounds of careful restoration, Rothschild rents part as his London home; the magnificent reception rooms are let for private dinners and parties, and the rest is given over to his multiple business interests. It is here, in a room overlooking the entrance, that Weinberg also has his base. The social irony is strong: Weinberg is a South African immigrant who rose to the top of an industry that does not enjoy the best of public images - yet here he is, sitting in a house belonging to one of England's great landed families.

Weinberg is married to Anouska Hempel, the ex-actress turned hotel owner and dress designer. Aged 62 and estimated to be worth at least £40 million, he could easily retire. His close friend, Rothschild (56 years old, £150 million) is in a similarly comfortable position to retire. But it is only 12 months since they embarked on their latest money-spinning project.

Tall and sun-tanned, he has a thoughtful, serious, demeanour. What was probably a harsh veld accent when he came here more than 30 years ago, is now soft and mellow. His childhood was blighted by the death of his Latvian-born father, when he was two. "I never knew him but I was told he was a kind and decent person, who was very enthusiastic about work and enjoyed it. I suppose I was brought up with the model of my father in mind." His father was a life insurance agent but initially, at least, Weinberg showed no desire to follow his example. He chose to be a barrister and read law at Witwatersrand University. He was part of a close, liberal group that included Sidney Lipworth, the future head of the British Monopolies and Mergers Commission and Joel Joffe, Nelson Mandela's barrister. Both Lipworth and Joffe were to follow him into British life assurance. Weinberg qualified but, in common with his friends, made up his mind to leave. "It was not a good time to be practising law in South Africa; it was the time of Sharpeville and a lot of unpleasantness." At the same time, he was conscious that a South African law degree, which is based on Roman-Dutch law, would not be much use elsewhere. Encouraged by Professor Jim Gower, the architect of self-regulation in London's financial markets, he decided to re-qualify in Britain. He took a Master's degree at the London School of Economics and decided to stay in the UK. The idea of practising law, however, quickly palled. "I didn't like the prospect of studying at the bar in a country where I had no contacts."

In South Africa he had done a lot of legal work for Donald Gordon, the life assurance magnate, who was just starting to build Liberty Life into one of the country's most successful companies. Weinberg decided to do the same here. In 1961, he formed Abbey Life and was later joined by his university friends. "We were three South African lawyers who thought alike - we were very un-English; we were strangers here."

Abbey Life began as a tiny company, capitalised at £50,000. After three years, when ITT, the US conglomerate, came along with an offer to buy it, Abbey had doubled its worth. ITT and another, much smaller company from the life assurance business, offered £110,000. Weinberg stayed on, to run the operation. In 1970, after the owners squabbled among themselves, ITT bought out the other shareholder for £25 million. Watching the shareholder make so much money from his work, was a formative experience. "During that last year I became conscious of the value I had built for someone else. I had no share options - ITT got 100%."

ITT took over and Weinberg quit. Almost immediately he was approached by Hambros Bank to start a new life company. This time, he made sure he was master as well as servant: he borrowed £1 million for a 10% stake in the new venture. After five years, Hambro Life was floated on the stock market. Weinberg was in his element. "It was exciting being head of a public company and responsible to the market. I enjoyed the challenge of being on the stock market, of meeting analysts and hosting lunches after the results." He took over Allied, one of the largest unit trust groups and Dunbar, the small private bank. He renamed the group Allied Dunbar. His methods - pushy advertising, hard-selling, paying high commission to agents sending him business and introducing new unit-linked products - were frowned upon by many in what until then had been a sleepy industry.

Allied Dunbar grew to become a large company in stock-market terms in those days, with a value of £500 million. It was not enough for Weinberg, though, who wanted the company to have a broader capital base and expand more rapidly.

First, a proposed merger with Charterhouse, the merchant bank then owned by his friend, Jacob Rothschild, was scuppered by a disapproving stock market. Then, in 1986, he sold the group for £664 million to British American Tobacco. Weinberg got a seat on the BAT board, although he now admits, he was never happy there. "I found it much less satisfying. We were a subsidiary of a quoted group, just a percentage of BAT's assets. In stock-market terms we didn't exist. Running Allied Dunbar became much more of a job."

He handed over the reins to Mike Wilson, Allied's chief executive and took a back seat. "Mike is a better manager than I am. He takes good notes, is good at controlling budgets and is much better in one-to-one situations. I'm much happier creating ideas - I think best and work best in meetings."

Weinberg was also able to devote himself more fully to charitable and public work. He became treasurer of the NSPCC, a trustee of the Tate, deputy chairman of Business in the Community and co-founder of the Per Cent Club, set up to encourage companies to give a proportion of their profits to charity.

His charity work, which began at Hambro Life in 1973, stemmed from his friendship with Joel Joffe. "He pressured us to give money to charity even before our profits were in," recalls Weinberg. After a row over the size of company donations - one director was worried the contributions would become a "leaking tap" on resources - Weinberg called a board meeting. "I got them to agree to give 1% of profits to charity on condition that the subject was never raised at board meetings again," he recalls. "The guy could not claim that 1% was a leaking tap."

More than a decade later, in 1985, Weinberg met Sir Hector (now Lord) Laing of United Biscuits. Laing recounted how he had tried, without success, to encourage UK companies to follow the US example and donate 1% of their profits to charity. "I told him, 'You're not marketing it right,'" says Weinberg. "Hector replied, 'Dear boy, you're absolutely right. We won't persuade anyone unless we market it properly.'" The idea of the Per Cent Club, with Laing and Weinberg as cofounders, was born. Companies who joined agreed to give a minimum of half a per cent to a charity of their choice. Today, the club has more than 500 major corporate members and raises around £100 million annually.

Over the years, Weinberg's public work has been exemplary - in a case of poacher turned gamekeeper he also became deputy chairman of the Securities and Investments Board. "There is no deep philosophical side to it - if you're lucky enough to earn a lot of money it is appropriate to give some back." He shrugs his shoulders. "I grew in to charitable work, I wasn't born into it. I didn't lie awake at night worrying that I wasn't doing enough." Allied Dunbar, he says, proudly, was "a model for a charitably minded company" - not for the amount donated but because of the way it was administered.

Staff were given the opportunity to spend time in the newly-established charity department. To counter possible criticism that the company was merely engaging in another form of marketing, Weinberg kept its name out of any publicity for two years. Although after that, "We thought it was important the staff should feel proud and take the credit for the good work they were doing".

Businessmen do good works for a mixture of motives: they want to put something back; their conscience is pricked; they think they might get a peerage. According to Weinberg, it can be one or all of them. "Guilt and conscience are mine, not recognition." His central worry is that "if capitalism wants to keep its good name, it's got to have a good face".

At BAT Weinberg remained close to Rothschild, serving on his St James's Place Capital company. He was on holiday in 1989 when he heard that Rothschild, Sir James Goldsmith and Kerry Packer had launched their £13-billion takeover bid for BAT. "Quite rightly Jacob didn't tell me, but I was very embarrassed."

Sir Patrick Sheehy, the BAT chairman, said he hoped Weinberg would help the defence effort. After a few hours thinking it over, Weinberg stood down from the boards of both companies. "I was employed by BAT but I was an old friend of Jacob. BAT wasn't happy - in a bid battle anyone who is neutral is against you." When the bid failed, he left Allied Dunbar. "It was not a satisfactory conclusion to 28 years in the life assurance industry; it was not the way I would have chosen to go out."

But within six months, he was back, heading up J Rothschild Assurance. The brainchild of Mike Wilson, who also left BAT, the two men infuriated their former employer by offering high salaries and the label of "partner" to many of Allied Dunbar's best salesmen. Revenge, claims Weinberg, smiling slightly, was not a factor. "Inevitably there are border skirmishes because Allied Dunbar people joined us but we're desperately keen to keep the relationship between us as good as we can."

Ask Weinberg why he does it and all sorts of reasons surface. He wanted to end his career on "a high rather than fizzle out". He has "enormous admiration" for Wilson. He "felt it would be an extremely profitable operation". He was excited about the idea of working with Jacob, "a highly creative person, who, in the nature of him is interested in new ways of making money".

As for calling the salesmen "partners", Weinberg's view is that he is trying to present a more up-market, user-friendly image of the industry. Someone saying he is a partner in J Rothschild Assurance has a better ring to it than if he says he is an agent for Allied Dunbar.

It was not his idea to launch in the teeth of a recession - he would have preferred to wait - but so far, he claims, the new business is going well. From an initial target of 400 "super" salesmen with average productivity two-and-a-half to three times the industry norm, they have hired 250. After meeting the start-up costs, says Weinberg, "we are moving to the stage where we'll soon be in profit".

He leans back in his chair. "Listen, it's not like I'm 18 again and thinking this will be the biggest company in the world. I know what the score is now: if I'd never left South Africa I would have been a QC or a judge; if ITT and its partner had not squabbled I would still be at Abbey Life; if the bid for BAT had not happened I would still be at Allied Dunbar and would have retired peacefully. In each case I've reacted to something external." He smiles. "And I like to think I've reacted positively."

For reprints of this article, contact Anne Oakley (071) 413 4336.

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