Three months after he took the top job at Sun Life Financial, Dean Connor set a lofty target: increase earnings to $2 billion by 2015. It was an audacious benchmark, and achieving the goal would require more than a one-third jump from its 2012 net operating profit of $1.48 billion.
Setting the bar high put the company’s employees on notice. “I think our people did find it a bit daunting,” Connor admits. “It was an expression of a change in the company, a change in the culture—one that is ambitious but accountable for results.”
And it worked. Last year, Sun Life came within a hair’s breadth of hitting its original target, but it smashed a revised goal of $1.85 billion, set following the 2013 sale of the company’s U.S. variable annuity and individual life insurance business. Connor is two years ahead of schedule—and not in the least surprised. “We could see how things were improving coming out of the crisis,” he says. “This was our way to express our confidence in the growth of the business.” Investors have rewarded that confidence with both share price and market cap doubling since the new CEO took over.
- CEO of the Year 2014: Louis Vachon of National Bank »
- Most Innovative CEO of the Year 2014: Michael Roach of CGI Group »
- Top Turnaround CEO 2014: Ian Dundas of Enerplus »
Sun Life’s stellar growth came at a time when the insurance business is facing some hard questions with low long-term interest rates threatening margins. “The industry as a whole was fighting through a difficult operating environment, and [Connor] did an excellent job of positioning Sun Life to do well,” says Robert Sedran, managing director of equity research and financial services at CIBC World Markets. Connor’s solution was to unsentimentally pivot away from the company’s traditional insurance business toward wealth management products like pensions.
Developing staff has helped the company succeed, but Connor says it’s also important to keep the talent pipeline primed. “This is an expectation I have of all of our senior leaders,” he explains. “If I ask, ‘Who are the top five people you would die to hire in your part of the business?’ I’m expecting them to name them and describe when they last had lunch or dinner with them to talk about opportunities at Sun Life.”
Connor himself joined Sun Life in 2006 from Mercer Human Resource Consulting and assumed the office of CEO in December 2011. In his time at the helm, he’s watched a rising middle class in Asia create entirely new markets. This could be an area of particularly high potential, as evidenced by one emerging nation in which Sun Life operates. “We’re No. 1 in the Philippines,” Connor notes. “It’s a country of nearly 100 million people, and we only have 700,000 customers. You can see the opportunity to grow in Asia is just tremendous.”
Connor is confident the company will continue to thrive because of the individuals it employs and serves. “People around Sun Life will tell you I’m very predictable on this: The last four years have been a relentless focus on talent and a relentless focus on customers.”