Oct. 11--Paul Geddes' mobile phone gives the game away. A score of 88 percent on Direct Line's DrivePlus app, for would-be insurance customers who want to prove how safe they are before taking out a policy, would suggest investors have little to worry about.
Okay, it was only a short jaunt in his Mercedes on a genteel stretch of Norfolk road, but you get the idea. Behind the wheel as in the driving seat of Direct Line, the chief executive marks a year on the stock market today in which he has been shown to be sticking close to the route map.
"You have to deliver what you say you would deliver, and I think we have done a good job of that," says Geddes, who was charged with prising the business out from Royal Bank of Scotland after European regulators ordered it was the price of its taxpayer bailout.
In some quarters he hadn't been given much chance. Bespectacled and weighing his words carefully between sips of latte, Geddes has dealt with poor IT systems, cut-throat competition and a rash of bogus whiplash claims that had eaten into profits.
Now the City is onside, he has set himself a bigger task. Can Geddes, 44, really achieve the Holy Grail for an industry plagued with disloyalty by taking the hassle out of buying car and home insurance at the Churchill, Privilege and Green Flag firm?
"Customers find it frustrating to have to go to four different price comparison websites, get 80 quotes, and not be quite sure who they are with every year," he says. "Trust is earned. Customers will give you more of their business for more years if you are really easy to deal with."
Shareholders certainly trust Geddes now. In 12 months, the group's stock price has grown by a fifth, valuing Direct Line at more than pounds sterling 3 billion and making the sale of RBS's remaining 28 percent stake by the end of next year look problem-free.
Its progress contrasts sharply with that of rival esure, another firm which was set up by industry veteran Peter Wood. Since it listed in March, the shares have slumped by a third after a dividend disappointment.
Geddes doesn't want to talk about his competitor. "I'm not going to be drawn on that," he says. "We really are focused on what we do."
Nor does he care to comment much on life under the infamous Fred Goodwin at RBS: "I found him fair to me and my business"; removing Martin Clunes from Churchill's advertising campaign after the actor's driving ban: "Dawn French is doing very well for us now"; or how far Direct Line's push into legal services could go: "I'm not launching wills over coffee."
What really gets him animated is talking about the technology that he thinks could transform the industry. Dressed in chinos, white Gant shirt and blue blazer, Geddes is heading Stateside later to meet investors, as well as speak at a conference hosted in San Francisco by Guidewire, one of his software partners. Such trips give him a chance to glimpse the smartphone-enabled future.
"If a customer just had an accident, we could be looking at their video capture of water coming through the ceiling, estimating and offering an almost immediate settlement. Technology genuinely offers a way of reducing friction," he enthuses.
But Geddes has a long way to go to turn around a sector that is driven by price.
Car insurance premiums across the industry have come down 10 percent in a year although Direct Line's rates have held up better and claims rates have fallen too. But it means the company must tread carefully in writing the right sort of business.
"We have value targets, not volume targets, so we have to hold our heads and be disciplined and sensible about how we price," Geddes adds.
At the same time, he has reduced costs by pounds sterling 130 million, including staff by 1400 and offices by more than half, from 32 to 15.
The Bromley-headquartered group's future is not just pinned on cutting. There is no irony when the man who dreamt of being a concert violinist when he was young insists that Direct Line "has many more strings to its bow" beyond motor insurance, where it