Capital ambitions: Why Nigel Wilson is persisting with L&G’s huge housing push

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Chief executive Nigel Wilson tells Joey Gardiner why not all of L&G’s investments have worked out so far - but why he remains optimistic that they will

“No comment,” says Nigel Wilson, with a broad chuckle and a wry grin that indicates my question has hit a mark. I’ve just asked the long-time chief executive of insurance giant L&G if he was pleased he turned down the ministerial job he was by all accounts offered by Liz Truss in September.

Despite his silence, one can’t but help feeling the decision to refuse Truss’ offer reflects well on his judgment – and I suspect he knows this.

Either way, if the media friendly Wilson – Sir Nigel, to give him his full title – is uncharacteristically unwilling to discuss his decision, it is certainly little surprise that he is being sought after at the highest levels. Since taking the L&G top job in 2012, Wilson has impressed both the City – through consistent financial performance – and policymakers with his vision of “inclusive capitalism”, his claim of putting social purpose at the heart of his multi-billion pound business.

His strategy to deliver this vision has been, on one level, simple: to take the billions in pension liabilities that L&G looks after (actually a staggering £1.3 trillion at the latest count) and, rather than engage in complex financial engineering, instead look for real physical assets to invest in which both deliver socially and generate long-term stable returns.

In few areas has this strategy and this vision played out more obviously than in L&G’s headlong plunge into residential development, where it has a plan to build 10,000 homes per year – which would make it the UK’s fourth biggest housebuilder.

But L&G’s investment has not been plain sailing. While its traditional housebuilding activities have progressed well, the more innovative activities have struggled through choppy waters. The modular business it set up six years ago has racked up more than £170m in losses and is yet to turn a profit, while its flagship later living business, Inspired Villages, is also loss-making. I meet Wilson at the launch of a major modular scheme – Bonnington Walk – in Bristol to ask him what has made it all so hard, and whether his patience with the sector is limitless.

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