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It's a wrap for Nish but we should not forget the supporting cast

THE City reaction to news of Edinburgh-based Standard Life's decision to sell its Canadian operations for £2.2 billion and return most of the proceeds to shareholders is unlikely to have left anyone in much doubt that the deal is viewed as a good piece of business.

Standard Life's shares surged eight per cent yesterday, adding nearly £750 million to its stock market worth.

David Nish, the ambitious chief executive of Standard Life, was at pains when the deal was announced on Wednesday night to emphasise just how much will have been distributed to shareholders after £1.75bn of the proceeds from the Canadian disposal are handed out. Even a cursory glance at the key numbers shows the life, pensions and investment company's shareholders have done very well since its demutualisation in 2006.

It is perhaps interesting that Mr Nish chose to focus only on the distributions since 2010. He became chief executive on January 1, 2010.

The numbers, not surprisingly given their source, make impressive reading.

Standard Life calculates the return of £1.75bn of capital to its investors, on the back of the planned disposal of its Canadian businesses to Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corporation, will be worth 73 pence per share.

Mr Nish noted this would take the total amount of returns and dividends to investors since 2010 to 147p-a-share.

When Standard Life was demutualised and put on the stock market in 2006, its shares were floated at 230p. They closed last night at 417.2p.

Although this is obviously the price before the return of capital, it is still clear from the numbers that investors at Standard Life have had a decent ride since the institution got on the publicly-quoted company bandwagon.

And it has been a fairly smooth journey, in contrast to the ups and downs over this period for some of Standard Life's competitors.

Mr Nish has been a relatively high-profile chief executive, showing no fear of wading into the independence debate in recent times.

He was a prominent figure even before he arrived at Standard Life, having fallen victim to a boardroom cull at ScottishPower in 2005 when Ian Russell was head of the Glasgow-based electricity and gas company. Mr Nish had been tipped for the chief executive post at ScottishPower but this prospect vanished during what became known as "the night of the long knives".

As well as getting involved in the constitutional debate, Mr Nish has shown a significant appetite for cost-cutting at Standard Life. Job cuts have featured during his time in charge.

He has also made much of how Standard Life has been positioning itself, through heavy investment in technology, to take maximum advantage of a changed environment for the sale of financial products.

Mr Nish has until now been quieter on the deal front, although there have been targeted purchases such as Ignis Asset Management. It will be interesting to see whether the tidy bit of business transacted with Manulife will put him in the shop window if other, bigger FTSE-100 companies are looking for a new chief executive.

And the deal is certainly likely to raise Mr Nish's profile further.

However, while Mr Nish might be looking good in the spotlight, we should not forget the huge amount of work done by his predecessor Sir Sandy Crombie in getting Standard Life to, and through, its flotation.

Sir Sandy was also instrumental in the early development of Standard Life Investments (SLI) as a largely autonomous unit within the Edinburgh life and pensions giant. SLI's chief executive, Keith Skeoch, took over where Sir Sandy left off and has driven its rapid expansion.

SLI's growth has been remarkable and contrasts with the fortunes of Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, which struggled for years to get a decent run of growth going and was recently acquired by Aberdeen Asset Management.

And, while Mr Nish could justifiably enjoy the City's ebullient response to Standard Life's £2.2bn deal, we should not forget the length of time it has taken the venerable Scottish institution to develop its Canadian business, which employs more than 2000 of its 8500-strong workforce.

It has been operating in Canada since 1833. So it is therefore a bit of a shame to see such a long-established and evidently valuable operation change hands, albeit for a good price.

It is also always good to see Scottish companies thrive overseas, and international diversification has its advantages.

While there is a short-term gain to shareholders from big returns of capital, especially when they can choose to receive it as income or capital for tax purposes as in this case, it is sometimes more satisfying to see money being employed by companies to make a greater return than that which a private investor could achieve.

Having said that, Mr Nish appears to have had more success in building shareholder value than his former boss, Mr Russell, did at ScottishPower. Mr Russell also has his work cut out on the shareholder value front at newspaper group Johnston Press, of which he has been chairman since 2009.

But it is often more heart-warming to see a surge in stock market worth accompanied by growth of the workforce and international presence, rather than a reduction in size through a big disposal.

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