Aviva pledges to return £4bn to shareholders

Insurer to cut costs and focus on key markets after pressure from activist investment firm Cevian

Last modified on Thu 12 Aug 2021 08.56 EDT

The insurer Aviva has promised to return “at least” £4bn to shareholders by next June after pressure from an activist shareholder.

Its chief executive, Amanda Blanc, said the company would accelerate the capital return, starting with an immediate share buyback of £750m.

Since she took the helm in July 2020, the company has sold off eight businesses in France, Italy, Poland, Turkey and Vietnam to focus on its key markets of the UK, Ireland and Canada. The disposals, to be completed by the end of the year, will raise £7.5bn.

The capital return falls short of the £5bn demanded by Cevian, a Swedish investment firm and the largest activist fund in Europe, which has built a 5% stake in Aviva to become its second-biggest shareholder after BlackRock. The insurer also wants to use the sale proceeds to pay down debt by a further £1.7bn.

Blanc said management would meet Cevian and other investors in coming days to discuss Aviva’s plans and financial performance. She said the management team was “really pleased” with Thursday’s announcement. “Hopefully everybody sees that in the same way.” She added that relations with Cevian were “constructive”.

Jefferies analyst Philip Kett said he had expected the capital return to take years. “Amanda Blanc continues to execute on her plans faster than we anticipated … the size of the capital return is less important than the rapid pace of return.”

Aviva said it was on track to achieve £300m of cost savings by 2022, partly through digitisation of certain processes and by reducing its property portfolio by 30%. Cevian has called for £500m in cost savings by 2023.

Aviva, one of Britain’s biggest insurance firms which sells life, home, health and car insurance, reported a 17% rise in first-half operating profits from continuing operations to £725m. This was below analysts’ expectations, but its general insurance division posted its best performance in a decade.

Blanc is one of only seven female chief executives leading a FTSE 100 company. Emma Walmsley, chief executive of drugmaker GSK, is currently being targeted by the New York hedge fund Elliott Management, run by the billionaire Paul Singer, which took a sizeable stake in GSK to push for change in April.

Cevian said in June that Aviva had been “poorly managed for many years” but expressed confidence in Blanc, Aviva’s chair George Culmer and the company’s potential. The activist investor is not seeking a seat on the board, it is understood.

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