There are few British companies that can trace their history back almost two centuries and find that their founding values are still guiding how they do business in today’s highly competitive world. Standard Life was established in 1825 and is one of the UK’s global export success stories. It is as proud of its heritage as a Scottish company as it is of its place in the financial services industry.

“Our long history shapes the culture of the organisation,” says Sandy Begbie, Chief Operations Officer at Standard Life. “Our values mean we do the right thing by customers and shareholders.” 

For more than 180 years Standard Life was a mutual company, which meant that its members were its policyholders and the business was managed for their benefit. However, since 2006, it has been listed on the London Stock Exchange and owned by shareholders. The decision to demutualise – approved by 98 per cent of members – was driven by dramatic changes in pensions and savings that threatened all the industry’s major players. “We have worked hard to retain the strengths and values of a mutual,” says Begbie, “while recognising we needed to up our game to remain an independent company.”

The last five years have seen the company move from strength to strength, with its profitability and share price doubling. But, while commercially minded, it seeks to be a responsible corporate citizen. It is listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and is heavily involved in ethical investment.


People power

While building on its core UK business, the company has also become more international by expanding into the US and Asia. In this way it is returning to its roots; at the end of the 19th century, Standard Life had agencies selling policies in North America, the West Indies, India and Shanghai. Indeed, whereas it was heavily Edinburgh-centric five years ago, the company now has a large operation in London and offices in cities across continental Europe, Asia and the US. “There are opportunities for people to develop their career as we open more offices,” says Begbie.

With 6,500 employees, Standard Life is a people business. Its combination of a long-standing heritage and a renewed international focus informs how the company acts as an employer and the candidates it looks to recruit. Standard Life invests heavily in training and development. This ensures that employees receive a broad company-wide programme and, depending on which discipline they join, an intensive business-focused curriculum. 

Employees earn a competitive salary and bonus, join a top-performing pension scheme and can acquire shares through two employee share schemes. In exchange, they need to have a desire to understand both retail customers and corporate clients and make a long-term commitment to develop their skills through the leadership programmes Standard Life offers.

The firm explicitly seeks out team players rather than cultivating a “star culture”. “We are a team-based organisation and there’s a commitment to work together,” says Begbie. 

All of these ideas and approaches came together when 4,500 staff took part in workshops offering personal statements and stories that could be used to articulate the guiding principles of Standard Life. This resulted in defining a common purpose of “helping build a more prosperous world”. To this end, the company seeks to help customers build a solid foundation for the future by increasing the value of people’s assets and making them more prosperous while retaining strong relationships with communities, industry, shareholders, employees and clients across the world.

With the company marking its 200th anniversary in 2025, now as much as ever it is looking to how its past can help inform its present and future. “We want customers to see Standard Life as a company that will differentiate itself,” says Begbie, “and our heritage is an important part of that.”