LONDON (Reuters) - Mindful of past missteps with investors, British insurer Prudential is meeting top shareholders to gauge their preferences for the successor to CEO Tidjane Thiam, who unexpectedly announced his departure this week.
The company, listed in London and Asia, said on Tuesday its highly-regarded chief executive would leave in May to join Credit Suisse -- a move that has made waves across the global financial services industry.
Prudential Chairman Paul Manduca said the board had identified a successor from a range of internal and external candidates and expected to be able to announce a new CEO once the regulatory approval process had been completed.
Some analysts and small stockholders said they were surprised the company failed to announce the new boss at the same time as Thiam's departure, but sources close to the matter suggest the delay has given Prudential shareholders a chance to air their views.
Prudential's relationship with investors and regulators soured in the run-up to Thiam's ill-fated attempt to acquire Asian rival AIA Group in 2010, when cash-strapped shareholders refused to back a cash call required to finance the takeover in a rare example of outright rebellion.
The company was also fined 30 million pounds ($45 million) and Thiam was publicly censured by the then regulator, the Financial Services Authority (FSA), for failing to tell it about the takeover plan because the insurer feared a leak.
Since then, the firm has worked hard to repair its relationship with both, and sources say it is keen to maintain this goodwill by seeking feedback from top shareholders on the type of CEO they would like before any announcement is made.
"They were scolded a bit when it came to AIA," said a top-10 shareholder, one of those granted an audience with the company. "They will definitely jump through all the hoops to make absolutely certain the person they have identified is approved by all the regulators. This is a very international business and this takes time," he added.
Prudential declined to comment.
The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the FSA's replacement organisation, requires firms to plan for board departures and vets all prospective executives under rules designed to make industry players more accountable for their actions.
"We've been engaged with Pru on succession planning on the basis change was in the air," a top 20 investor said.
Given Prudential's size, Thiam's successor would also have to be approved by the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA); a process likely to include an interview.
Mike Wells, currently chief of Prudential's high-performing U.S. arm, has been cited by several media outlets as a likely successor, though UK & Europe boss Jackie Hunt -- feted for her experience in the British insurance sector -- has also been tipped.
A third fund manager among Prudential's 30 largest shareholders said he was also meeting the company this week.
"The fact that the individual does not already have PRA approval suggests the person is not working in a UK role at the moment," he said, adding he expected the new CEO to be a promotion rather than an external hire.
While Thiam leaves Prudential in good shape, his successor has several key challenges to address -- not least whether to uproot the 167-year-old company from the UK, which provides a shrinking proportion of revenues.
Prudential has been expanding in Asia, where middle income consumers and growing businesses in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand have historically been largely uninsured.
Analysts also flagged the uncertain regulatory landscape for European insurers and the difficulties imposed by new Solvency II rules, which will dictate how much capital they need to hold against various investments from January 2016.
These new capital restrictions could hamper Prudential's ability to meet several ambitious financial targets that the successor will have just two years to deliver on once he takes over the top job.
In December 2013, Prudential said it was targeting at least 10 billion pounds of cumulative cash generation by the end of 2017, driven primarily by demand for investment and insurance products from Asia's wealthy middle classes.
The company also wants to book 15 percent pretax IFRS operating profit growth annually up to 2017 in its Asian life and asset management business and grow Asian underlying free surplus cash generation to at least 900 million pounds by 2017. The number came in at 484 million pounds for 2012.
"You don't want to be complacent and whoever comes in, you expect them to spend the first 100 days (settling in and) then ... have the next 5 year strategy laid out and confirmed," the top-10 shareholder said.
($1 = 0.6641 British Pounds)
Additional reporting by Carolyn Cohn