New Sun Life CEO to chart steady course for growth

TORONTO (Reuters) - Sun Life Financial will focus on expanding its business in the United States, China and India rather that pushing into new markets, the man set to be the next chief executive of Canada’s No. 3 life insurer said on Monday.

Donald Stewart, Chief Executive Officer of Sun Life Financial, sits before speaking at their annual general meeting for shareholders in Toronto, May 19, 2010. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Sun Life Chief Operating Officer Dean Connor, 54, reiterated the company’s growth strategy after it announced he will succeed long-time CEO Donald Stewart, 64, on December 1.

Connor, who has worked at the Toronto-based life insurer since 2006, said Sun Life’s footholds in China, India and the United States already offer great opportunities.

“I would say our main focus is to get bigger and stronger in the markets in which we currently operate as opposed to planting new flags in new countries,” Connor said in an interview with Reuters. “We have a lot of runway in all of the markets in which we operate.”

Connor, who was a consultant for 28 years before joining Sun Life under Stewart five years ago, said his business style is different from that of Stewart, but declined to specify how that might manifest itself.

“We will be different and those differences will appear over time,” Connor said. “When it comes to strategy and goals and aspirations for the company, I’d say I’ve certainly participated in the development of the current strategy and will now, starting in December, lead the development of that strategy in the future.”

Connor said Sun Life faces the same obstacles as all life insurers: low interest rates, volatile equity markets, fragile European markets, a slow recovery in the United States and global regulatory change.

“I’d balance that with the three significant trends that are benefiting Sun Life,” he said, listing the retirement of the baby boomers, the downloading of government responsibilities on to employers and individuals and the “astonishing” growth of the middle class in China and India.

The retirement of Stewart did not come as a surprise, and one analyst said the choice of his replacement was well-telegraphed by Sun Life.

“(The move) likely suggests nothing transformational on the short-term horizon for SLF,” BMO Capital Markets insurance analyst Tom MacKinnon said in a research note.

MacKinnon said Connor had been considered the likely replacement for Stewart since Sun Life announced the retirement of Jon Boscia last year. Connor has run the Canadian division since 2008, while Boscia had been president of SLF and ran its U.S., Asian and British divisions.

Stewart, who led Sun Life for 13 years, saw the company through demutualization in 2000 and expanded its operations beyond Canada to the United States and Asia. But the insurer has been buffeted by the financial crisis, as low interest rates hurt returns and stock market losses cut the value of its huge portfolio.

Connor was also named to the company’s board of directors.

In addition, Sun Life said its chairman, Ronald Osborne, will step down as of November 30 and retire from the board in 2012. He will be replaced by James Sutcliffe, who heads the company’s risk review committee.

Additional reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by John Picinich and Peter Galloway