Taking charge

Leadership is that most precious of commodities in the corporate world. It’s almost always in short supply -- typically, when it’s needed most.

The long-suffering shareholders of Swiss Life Group know this only too well.

The insurer, a staid but reliable bastion of the Swiss financial scene for almost 150 years, caught the financial fever of the late ‘90s bull market and paid dearly for its hubris. A breakneck expansion into equities and asset management came undone when the markets tanked, leaving the company on the verge of collapse. To make matters worse, Swiss Life lost two CEOs in the space of ten months; the first thanks to his ill-judged expansion strategy, the second because of conflicts of interest surrounding an investment scheme for top executives.

Such was the daunting situation facing Rolf Dörig when he was appointed chief executive in November 2002. As Contributor Alison Langley writes in this month’s cover story (“Reviving Swiss Life,” page 42), Dörig began by drawing on his experience as a colonel in the Swiss Army to bolster the morale of his troops at the company. Then he set about refocusing the group around its core life insurance and pensions business, working closely with the insurer’s recently appointed chairman, former Swiss central banker Bruno Gehrig.

The team of Dörig and Gehrig has put Swiss Life back on solid footing. The company is in the black again after two years of heavy losses, and three trips to the capital markets have strengthened its balance sheet. Now it needs to restore growth by gaining market share in countries dominated by more-powerful rivals like Germany’s Allianz Group and France’s Axa Group. That will be a true test of the pair’s leadership.

In this issue we highlight other corporate leaders in Institutional Investor‘s second annual ranking of Europe’s best chief executives. Chosen by more than 700 portfolio managers and securities analysts, the top-ranked CEOs defy easy generalization. Telecom Italia Mobile’s Marco De Benedetti has eschewed takeovers and returned cash to shareholders, while Royal Bank of Scotland Group’s Frederick Goodwin splashed out $10.5 billion to buy Cleveland-based Charter One Financial and bolster his bank’s U.S. presence. The top executives share one trait: They pursue clear strategies and deliver strong returns.

That is the kind of leadership investors are keen to reward.