Long-serving Citigroup chief executive Stephen Bird joined the UK asset manager abrdn in autumn 2020. The company was then named Standard Life Aberdeen, following the 2017 mega-merger between Standard Life and Aberdeen Asset Management.
To bring a new lease of life to the company, Bird instigated a corporate rebrand, launching abrdn in 2021. While some considered the move controversial, the CEO has no regrets.
Here, we’ll reveal Bird’s reasons behind the abrdn rebrand and the hard decisions he had to make after becoming CEO.
A seasoned banker with a reputation for delivering excellent results in complex financial markets, Bird has over two decades of experience in leadership roles. During his tenure with Citigroup, Bird oversaw banking in 19 countries and understood first-hand how to handle tricky business transformations.
Bird joined Standard Life Aberdeen in September 2020 and took over from Keith Skeoch, who had shared chief executive duties with Martin Gilbert since the 2017 merger.
Bird describes inheriting an asset manager that was primarily insurance-based and had “deep competence and good people.” The CEO’s task was to help shape the business into an asset manager that could thrive in the 21st century.
The prevailing story around Standard Life Aberdeen was that the 2017 merger hadn’t fulfilled its potential and the company had been struggling ever since. Bird notes that mergers of equals with two CEOs rarely result in rapid change.
Bird was aware of this story and also “worried” that the company had lost a contract to manage over £100 billion of pension money for Lloyds Banking Group in 2018. At the time, he wondered how the deal could have failed.
Bird spoke to the company’s largest investors to avoid further conflict, leading to the sale of the Standard Life brand to Phoenix Group in early 2021. Phoenix had already bought the company’s UK and European insurance business in 2018.
The sale ran parallel to the negotiation of a 10-year strategic partnership between Phoenix and Standard Life Aberdeen. The CEO explains that renewing the relationship with the company’s biggest partner was key to his new strategy and took the risk of losing any other clients “off the table.”
A rebrand for abrdn
Bird finalised the offloading of the Standard Life brand a few months before he announced a major rebrand for the company in spring 2021. Whilst the abrdn rebrand drew some criticism, Bird explains that the move has since made the firm more recognisable.
Brand research shows that abrdn is now the second most recognised asset manager behind BlackRock (currently the world’s largest asset manager) in the United States. Bird took inspiration from BlackRock’s exchange-traded funds (ETFs) model. He also received advice from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink when modernising abrdn’s approach to investment.
Making tough decisions
Bird acknowledges that he had to make some difficult decisions in the first 16 months as abrdn’s CEO. This included cutting the dividend by one-third.
Slashing the dividend was a risk, considering the company’s share price almost halved following the 2017 merger. However, Bird emphasises the move was a prudent one that simultaneously cut cash distributions to shareholders and protected the company’s reputation as a careful investor.
Some abrdn staff saw cuts to bonuses, but Bird has promised colleagues they will reap the rewards of his initial moves once the firm starts improving.
Acquiring tech led platforms
Echoing his predecessor Martin Gilbert’s fondness for deals, Bird has guided abrdn to make several acquisitions to help advance the company from a technology perspective. abrdn bought artificial intelligence (AI) wealth manager Exo Investing in August 2021 and the investing insights platform Finimise in November 2021.
abrdn also acquired the direct investing platform interactive investor in 2022. Bird explains that buying a conventional wealth manager would risk employees leaving with their clients. In contrast, interactive investor holds a position as the market challenger and is already helping transform the company’s direct investing capabilities to enhance clients’ benefits.
About Stephen Bird
Countless consumer and commercial clients have benefited from the financial and business insights of Stephen Bird, both in the UK and internationally. The former banker is currently CEO of abrdn, the leading asset manager in the UK that manages and administers £508 billion of assets across Investments, Adviser, and Personal vectors.
In 1995, Bird gained a Master of Business Administration in Economics and Finance from Cardiff University (where he is also an Honorary Fellow). His early career involved management roles at British Steel and the financial services company GE Capital (as a director of UK operations from 1996 to 1998).
Bird joined Citigroup in 1998 and spent 21 years with the investment banking company. He gained broad experience across a range of market regions (including Asia and Latin America) as chief executive for Citigroup’s Asia Pacific business lines and as the CEO of Citigroup’s global consumer banking.
Bird oversaw all of Citigroup’s banking businesses in 19 countries, including mortgages, credit cards, and retail banking and wealth management as the global consumer banking CEO. He also led the operations and technology supporting these businesses.
Bird retired from Citigroup in November 2019 and became the CEO of abrdn in September 2020. During 2021, he served as an abrdn representative director to the United States closed-end fund boards and the Société d’investissement à Capital Variable (SICAV) fund boards, where abrdn is the appointed investment manager.
Bird is currently a member of Scotland’s Financial Services Growth and Development Board and the Investment Association’s board of directors.