THE City used to refer to him as "Big Clive", but insurance dealmaker Clive Cowdery is proving that weight loss is his speciality as he sets about trimming both his waistline and the UK insurance industry.
The maverick insurance tycoon, who made his estimated 130 million fortune by swallowing closed-life insurance funds and stripping out costs, showed he was on better form than ever this week when he passed the first hurdle of his latest plan to create a "super life insurer".
In an act of characteristic boldness, the 46-year-old nailed Friends Provident in a fourth and final attempt at winning over its notoriously conservative board, snatching the life company for what analysts privately describe as a 1.86 billion "bargain".
The City is gearing itself up to see a lot more of Cowdery and his Resolution bidding vehicle over the next 18 months after he revealed that he has nine other potential victims in his sights, with Legal & General, Scottish Widows and Clerical Medical thought to be among the lead contenders.
No doubt his prey intends to put up a good fight, but after his success with his first company, also called Resolution, analysts are starting to believe that this brassy, sublimely confident Bristolian is unstoppable.
He may have left school with three O-levels and not a single A-level to his name, but the City learned long ago not to underestimate Cowdery. Born into a single-parent family with four siblings and no income other than state benefits, he has never let his background get the better of him in the Oxbridge-dominated City.
A self-confessed "privileged beneficiary of the welfare state", he gained his business know-how from the University of Life, taking a job as an insurance salesman in Cornwall after a short spell of voluntary work in America on leaving school.
With his first marriage already under his belt at the age of 20, he moved on to consultancy before setting up an insurance firm on behalf of the Rothschild family in Dublin. This soon led to opportunities at Scottish Amicable and a position at the helm of General Electric's European insurance business. But it wasn't long before Cowdery, an entrepreneur at heart, decided to branch out on his own and set up Resolution mark one in 2004.
He spied an opportunity to buy up "zombie funds" – insurance funds closed to new business – and made monumental cost-savings through integration. It was an idea that had long been talked about but while the other, public school-educated City boys sat around and procrastinated, it was Cowdery who had the gumption to take the plunge.
The gamble paid off and by the time Resolution mark one was sold to rival Hugh Osmond's Pearl Group at the height of the market for 5 billion in 2007, Cowdery had the City's full attention.
Cowdery admits he thought about leaving the insurance game and devoting his time to the Resolution Foundation, the charitable organisation he set up with his own money to help Britons on low incomes. He has never let it get the better of him in the business world, but his start in life is evidently an issue that preys on his mind. While others have turned their back on the working class once they strike it rich, Cowdery is bent on giving something back.
He has spoken of his gratitude to the welfare state, but wants to help individuals who are keen to wean themselves off benefits and make it in the working world. The Resolution Foundation, set up in 2005, aims to improve the lives of Britons on "less than median incomes".
But despite his evident enthusiasm for charity work, Cowdery soon gave into temptation and re-entered the City, raising 600m for Resolution mark two, which floated on the London Stock Exchange in December.
The new group is, controversially, registered in Guernsey with his talented but small staff expected to earn the kind of rewards that will leave critics wondering if any lessons have been learned from the financial crisis.
Cowdery also relaunched himself, surprising the City with a suave, slimmer image. So enthusiastic were investors about the reincarnation of Resolution that they have agreed to back Cowdery's latest plan to gobble up life companies and sell them off in three to four years' time to the tune of 3bn.
"When you meet him, it's difficult not to be won over by him," said one insurance analyst. "He's very charming, very personable and very convincing."
He may be famous in the City for his energy and enthusiasm, but opponents should make no mistake: this pussycat turns into a tiger when challenged and he's notorious for not taking prisoners. Analysts frequently recall one ticking-off at a meeting two years ago when he was trying to merge Resolution mark one with Friends Provident.
"It was quite incredible," recounted one leading analyst. "He started off telling us – people who have been analysing the insurance industry for years – exactly what was wrong with the UK life industry and valuations. It was, basically, a 45-minute rant."
Those who have found themselves on the sharp end of his tongue have often questioned whether Cowdery is an entrepreneurial genius or simply a chancer who found himself in the right place, at the right time.
One analyst said: "Not to belittle his achievements, but he has been extremely lucky in terms of timing and timing is half of it. He has been in the right place at the right time. He's a salesman and people should remember that just because he says something confidently, it doesn't mean it's necessarily right.
"That said, you have to take your hat off to him because five years ago we were all talking about how someone should buy up closed insurance funds and while we all talked about it, he actually did it."
Cowdery's critics may dismiss him as "just a salesman", but as many insurance insiders privately admit, the gift of the gab is half the victory in an industry where business is famously done on the golf course or over long, booze-fuelled lunches. Those who have dealings with him say Cowdery was born for the job, winning over doubters with his easy charm. "He's very single-minded and clearly believes in what he is saying," said one individual who has frequent dealings with him.
While Cowdery could easily put any criticism down to sour grapes, one thing is for certain: the Square Mile is far from seeing the last of him yet. With characteristic confidence, he insisted on Tuesday that it won't be long before other life companies follow Friends' example and join Resolution's camp.
He says the next 18 months will be crucial for many UK life firms as they will be forced to raise extra cash either to fund expansion or to meet European capital requirements. "Some of them are close to throwing in the towel," he said boldly.
CLIVE Cowdery was born in Bristol in 1963. He was the third of five children and never knew his father. He attended Clevedon Comprehensive school in Somerset, but left with only three O-levels and no A-levels. He learned about the insurance industry the hard way, starting out as an insurance salesman in Cornwall in his early twenties.
City fame came in 2004 when he set up his own company, Resolution, which bought up closed life insurance funds and made dramatic cost-savings through integration. Resolution was sold for 5 billion to Hugh Osmond's Pearl Group in 2007, earning Cowdery close to 150 million. He floated his second company, also called Resolution, in December 2008 with the aim of creating a "super insurer".
Cowdery has five children by his first wife and a son by his second wife, Tina, with whom he lives in London. He is a keen philanthropist and has set up a foundation to help households on low incomes.