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The UK “must seize its second chance” says Nigel Wilson, CEO of Legal & General

Interview

Nigel Wilson
CEO of Legal & General

The UK must seize a “second chance” it has been given to become a world leader in key industries and address issues such as regional inequality and workplace wellbeing, according to Nigel Wilson, CEO of Legal & General.

“We have to recognise the UK is a low productivity, low growth, low wage economy because it’s never seized its full potential in the last 40 years due to significant underinvestment,” says Nigel, speaking to PwC for our 24th Annual UK CEO Survey. “And that’s caused a number of industries to not achieve their potential.” 

“But we’ve been given a second chance because of the pandemic and because of disruption.”

Legal & General is the biggest investor in UK plc, and Nigel admits he has a clear interest in seeing the UK seize this “second chance”. He says industries where the UK can become a world leader include life sciences, renewable energy and the electric vehicle supply chain and ecosystem.

Business response to climate change

“Climate change is the biggest investment opportunity in the world,” he says. “Energy has become clean, green and cheap. The North Sea presents a great opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in offshore wind power.”

“Carbon capture, hydrogen, onshore wind, solar, retrofitting 20 to 25 million houses. This all adds up to a trillion pound industry creating tens of thousands of jobs if we put in place policy and regulation to make these things happen.” 

“In life sciences. We can be world leaders in genomics and developing, monitoring and testing drugs. We have the academic power in our great universities but it’s not always translated into commercialisation.” 

To capitalise upon this second chance, Nigel says the regulatory landscape needs to become friendlier to business and more nurturing of opportunity.

In return, greater business success and prosperity will not only revive the UK economy, but it can bring greater prosperity to the regions, helping the government deliver on its ‘levelling up’ and social mobility agenda.

“We all have a second chance. Let’s seize it.”

Legal & General has invested heavily in regional regeneration programmes in cities such as Oxford, Newcastle and Cardiff and Nigel says it will continue to do so. The company has also made significant investments in academic research, including £200m for an innovation centre at Oxford University and £20m to establish an Advanced Care Research Centre at Edinburgh University, to tackle societal issues relating to our ageing population.

Businesses stepping up to invest in such research and regional regeneration is not all benevolence, but the potential of such partnerships and Nigel’s belief in the power of “inclusive capitalism” add to his belief that “the government needs to be more pro-business than ever” to encourage partnerships that will deliver positive change for the UK.  

“We all have to raise our aspirations about where we can be in 15 years and work together.”

During the pandemic, Nigel says Legal & General took a conscious decision not to apply for any furlough support from the government. 

“There was a principle behind that decision,” says Nigel. “We felt we shouldn’t be asking the government for money. We issued a statement very quickly to all staff saying everybody will be paid.” 

Another principled decision, saw Legal & General pay a shareholder dividend in the Spring of 2020, shortly after the Bank of England had warned against such payouts and many other companies were holding onto cash. “We did the right thing,” says Nigel. “I’ve never had so much mail from individual shareholders, telling me we did the right thing, telling me the dividends we pay are their pension.”

Nigel says this is just one example of how business leaders will need to be bold and prioritise right decisions over easy decisions, if they are to grasp the “second chance” that has been presented.

Health and wellbeing in the workplace

Something Nigel has been very focused on throughout the crisis – and long before – is the importance of wellbeing to people and their organisation. But he expresses disappointment that it took a pandemic to make a lot of people sit up and take notice.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for both physical and mental health,” says Nigel. “So much is dictated by the tone from the top of an organisation and I really want people to feel their health and wellbeing is important. That people have now realised health is wealth is a good outcome of the pandemic. But I don’t like that this is what it’s taken to make people realise that.”

“There is enlightened self interest in having a highly motivated, healthy, happy workforce. We’re watching our scores on sickness and absence, how people are feeling and how healthy they are. Those are important metrics of a successful firm. We need to look after our people.” 

For those organisations who haven’t yet prioritised wellbeing, Nigel believes the pandemic should encourage them to rethink their priorities. It brings things back to a common theme of the conversation.

“We all have a second chance. Let’s seize it.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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