Sun Life Chief Connor to Retire, Succeeded by CFO Strain

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Sun Life Financial Inc. Chief Executive Officer Dean Connor, who led the Canadian insurer through a decade of growth, will retire next year and hand the reins to Chief Financial Officer Kevin Strain.

Strain, 54, will join the board of Toronto-based Sun Life in February, taking the title of president as well, the firm said Wednesday. He’ll become CEO when Connor, 64, retires in August and focus in the interim on finding his successor as CFO.

Connor divested U.S. assets, including the $1.35 billion sale of an annuities business, drove the firm’s technology efforts and spearheaded aggressive growth in Asia since taking over as CEO in 2011. Sun Life’s shares have outpaced competitors’ during Connor’s tenure, and he has more than doubled assets under management to C$1.2 trillion ($930 billion).

“He really has transformed Sun Life from a bit of a sleepy company into better growth, and he made investments in technology that brought it into the present if not the future,” Barclays Plc analyst John Aiken said in an interview.

Sun Life shares were little changed at C$56.97 at 12:20 p.m. in Toronto. The stock has more than tripled since December 2011, when Connor became CEO, outperforming the 86% gain in the S&P/TSX Composite Financials Sector Index.

Strain joined Sun Life in 2002 when it acquired Clarica, where he had worked since 1997. In addition to experience running Sun Life’s individual insurance and investment business in Canada, he launched Sun Life Global Investments -- now known as SLGI Asset Management -- and expanded Sun Life Asia into Vietnam and Malaysia. Strain will continue to serve as CFO until a replacement is found.

‘Well-Suited’

“He has seen a wide breadth of the operation,” Aiken said. “He’s well-suited to fill Dean’s shoes.”

Strain said in an interview that he’s unlikely to make any major changes to the mix of Sun Life’s businesses and geographies, but will continue to seek expansion opportunities both organically and through acquisitions.

“I like the diversification of our mix,” he said. “Some of our businesses we want to continue to grow even more rapidly through investments, and that could be through M&A or other sort of investments into the businesses, like building distribution capabilities.”

On the digital front, Connor pointed in the same interview to accomplishments including rolling out web-based platforms and mobile apps before competitors, and the 2017 introduction of a bot named Ella that helps clients with their benefits and pension plans. He also noted that investments in helping employees and advisers work remotely with clients paid off when the pandemic prevented face-to-face meetings.

Strain said he plans to continue shifting the business toward a digital-first mindset, making the company more agile. Information technology and Sun Life’s businesses “are working closely together, versus being sort of a service provider,” he said. The goal is to have “IT understand the business more closely and acting more like a digital company.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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