Saturday Profile: Gerry Grimstone

FOR his first annual general meeting presiding as chairman of Standard Life, Gerry Grimstone will be on crutches. He originally thought he'd strained a muscle until his Achilles' tendon snapped, landing him in a wheelchair for weeks.

The temptation to draw parallels with a fatal weak spot in the man's make-up, however, go unrewarded. Grimstone's reputation as being a hard negotiator while maintaining a level of good humoured congeniality has armoured him against the arrows of misfortune.

A civil servant who first came to prominence with the privatisation of Britain's water industry, he moved into merchant banking in 1986, joining Schroders, a family-controlled company and at the time also the UK's largest independent investment bank. Grimstone retired at the age of 50 to start a portfolio career. He joined Standard Life's board in 2003. He is also non-executive chairman of Candover, a FTSE 250 private- equity firm.

His Achilles' heel may be a mere physical complaint, but he has not been immune from involvement in corporate dramas of an Olympian scale.

He was Schroders' director of Asian operations in 1995 when fellow venerable merchant banker Barings was brought down by the actions of a then obscure derivatives trader – the now infamous Nick Leeson who lost the bank 500 million. In retrospect, alongside similar problems at Socit Genrale, which recently survived losses of 5 billion under similar circumstances, it looks like small beer. But it is a good indication of how things can change radically in the space of only a few years.

Grimstone has had a hand in some of the biggest changes to shape Britain's politicical and economic landscape.

As the youngest assistant secretary to the Treasury until 1986, he earned the nickname "Mr Privatisation". It is a moniker he is proud of – particularly his involvement in structuring the privatisation of those companies which would seem odd now if in public hands, such as Cable & Wireless, British Airways and Jaguar. There were over 20. But he was well out before privatisation got to more controversial sectors like the railways and nuclear power.

Grimstone cut his teeth as a civil servant working on both sides of the political spectrum. He supported the then minister of state for health, David Owen, during a stint in the department of health before working with Nigel Lawson and Margaret Thatcher when he moved to the Treasury in 1982.

It is in the civil service that he honed his predilection for robust debate. Grimstone comes across as gregarious and friendly, with a quick wit and a throaty chuckle. But he won't hesitate in vigorously holding anyone to account.

"You were told as a Treasury civil servant if a point was worth making it was worth making strongly," says Grimstone.

"In those days it was great – you could be a young guy in front of the PM or the chancellor of the exchequer, and you were expected to speak up – if you had a point of view you were expected to hold your ground."

It is a skill that has served the board of Standard Life well during yet another era of vast corporate change. Grimstone was invited to join the board at the same time as Sir Brian Stewart, who was also chairman of Scottish & Newcastle. There was no inkling then he would become his successor. At the time the main concern was to defend the company's status as a mutual insurance group. But when it became apparent this was no longer sustainable, Grimstone was among those ready to think the unthinkable.

That board meeting would have been one of high drama, when the path they needed to take became clear. The company would have to demutualise. The chief executive at the time, Iain Lumsden, would have to resign.

Grimstone had spent a good part of his career judging companies on their books. And those of Standard Life, which didn't have to submit to the same levels of accountability and scrutiny as publicly traded companies, were impenetrable.

Once the decision was taken there was then the hard work – three gruelling years creating new management systems, modern accounting systems. It was not going to be easy. The firm slashed payments to IFAs, cut jobs and brought spending on the executive team in line with companies of similar size. Grimstone chaired the remuneration committee while the tabloids attacked the newly-fattened cats driving red Porsches as policy holders suffered and people lost their jobs.

It seems ancient history now that Standard Life has been trading successfully as a PLC since 2006. And when deputy chairman David Newlands left that year, Grimstone was "chuffed" when he was asked to replace him – as he would eventually replace Stewart when he retired. It was a sign of the board's confidence in him, that they would want him after having gone through the pain of demutalisation together. "We knew more about each than was healthy in some ways," jokes Grimstone. "It was gratifying."

One Standard Life insider describes Grimstone as "intelligent and combative". On the difference between him and the "ignitable" Stewart, the source said: "Brian could start a row in an empty cupboard, Gerry would need somebody else in the cupboard."

Others talk of Grimstone's tall, physically imposing presence. "Perhaps unjustly, you might just be a little apprehensive of getting the hairdryer treatment," says a friend.

Chief executive Sandy Crombie provides Grimstone with a foil and a sparring partner. "I'll never forget the time he said to me 'chairman, you are talking mince'. I never realised mince was a good Scottish word for rubbish," says Grimstone. He still lives mainly in London, commuting to spend two days a week in Edinburgh where he keeps a flat in the exclusive Rutland Square.

He is a non-executive chairman, and it is pointed out among Edinburgh's circles that "he holds the jackets, and that is what a chairman should do".

Grimstone is adamant – he is not chief executive. Although Hugh Osmond, head of insurance group Pearl which pipped Standard Life to the 5bn acquisition of life fund Resolution, seemed to think it was Grimstone driving the deal. For his part Grimstone shrugs off comments the Edinburgh firm lost the battle, rather it was better than paying too much. And it was good experience for the executives of a company that may be venerable at 180 years old but is also young and green at two years old as well.

Despite the dramas of the failed bid for Resolution and the general upheavals affecting the market, he is likely to preside over what is expected to be an unexceptional AGM on Monday. There might be questions about the group's gently underperfoming share price and who, if anyone, will replace Trevor Matthews (the former head of Standard Life's UK business), but a drama-free meeting is exactly the sort a chairman wants.

30-Second CV

GRIMSTONE, 58, was born and raised in England but has roots in Scotland.

His grandfather was born in Glasgow and served as a soldier in the Black Watch. Grimstone's wife owned a house in Galloway on Loch Trool where he spent every August for 20 years.

Now divorced, he has three children.

His career has taken him all over the world, working in Hong Kong and New York with Schroders. As a result he is a strong believer in the importance of international experience and trade. At Standard Life, Grimstone heads the board of its operations in China while last year the UK Trade & Investment's Financial Services Sector Advisory Board appointed him "Financial Services Champion for China and India".

• Education: Merton College, Oxford, MSc in chemistry.

• Career: 1972-82 – Department of Health and Social Security. 1982-86 – HM Treasury, Treasury assistant secretary. 1986-99 – Schroders, director of corporate finance, head of international finance, deputy chairman and head of investment in Asia-Pacific; head of investment banking in North America.