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Zobl to depart troubled Swiss Life

Manfred Zobl has decided to hand over power at Swiss Life Keystone Archive

The chief executive of the Swiss Life insurance company, Manfred Zobl, is to step down because of differences over strategy with the board of directors.

At the same time, Swiss Life announced that profit for 2001 would be about SFr100 million ($58.86 million), a drop of almost 90 per cent over the previous year’s performance.

A statement on Wednesday from Swiss Life’s headquarters in Zurich said Zobl, who has been CEO for almost ten years, had decided to resign his post effective immediately – on Thursday.

It cited differing views on the direction of the company’s strategic direction and the timeframe needed to bring long-term projects to fruition as reasons for the move.

The company said the time needed would have exceeded the period of commitment Zobl had planned to lead it.

Buying companies

Zobl, aged 56, turned the insurance company owned by its 500,000 customers into a public company in 1997 and in the following three years quintupled earnings by buying companies outside Switzerland and pushing into asset management.

However, the plan is largely considered to have failed, as slowing economic growth led to a decline in equities and interest rates. The share price has fallen by more than 60 per cent over the past year and 25 per cent in the past four weeks alone.

Swiss Life said its board of directors “stressed” the fact that the company had some of the highest reserves of any company in Switzerland. The board confirmed in the statement that it would stick to its decision to forego a dividend payment and said it had initiated a review of company strategy.

Zobl is to be replaced by Roland Chlapowski, who joined the Swiss Life group in 1995. He managed the subsidiary La Suisse until 1999 and since then has headed the Swiss Division, which conducts all insurance activities for the whole of Switzerland.

The resignation of Zobl is the second major announcement in the Swiss insurance sector this week. On Monday the CEO of Zurich Financial Services, Rolf Hüppi, announced he would step down by the middle of the year after coming under pressure for having a dual mandate as both CEO and chairman. However, he is to stay on at the group as head of the board.

Nothing fundamentally wrong

Eric Güller, an analyst at the cantonal bank of Zurich, told swissinfo that he did not believe this week’s developments in the Swiss insurance industry showed there were any fundamental weaknesses.

“The Swiss insurance market is very diversified. Swiss Life is having a problem with the capital market and regulations in Switzerland, while the Zurich Financial Services group is just changing strategy,” he said.

“For us the resignation of Mr Zobl is a clear sign for a change, so we expect a presentation of a strategy change in the next few weeks. The announcement of the SFr100 million profit is rather a positive surprise because we expected less after the profit warning at the end of January,” he commented.

Güller added that the markets would in particular be looking for a sustainable improvement of the earnings quality and concentration on the insurance business.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR