Aviva has announced the surprise departure of chief executive Mark Wilson, saying it was “time for new leadership to take the group to the next phase of its development”.
Mr Wilson was appointed in January 2013 and since then, the company’s financial performance has significantly improved.
He will stay with the group until April to help with the transition.
Aviva said its aims under Mr Wilson’s leadership had been achieved, while he said he left it in a “strong position”.
The company said it would immediately start looking for Mr Wilson’s successor and that non-executive chairman Sir Adrian Montague would assume executive responsibilities in the meantime.
Sir Adrian said: “Mark leaves the group in a far stronger state than when he joined.
“There is much further to go in accelerating our strategic development and enhancing shareholder value. We have agreed with Mark this is the right time for a new leader to ensure Aviva delivers to its full potential.”
Mr Wilson said the company was in “poor health” when he joined it and added: “I am happy I leave the company in a strong position from which it can thrive.”
Aviva’s share price rose by 2% in early trading after the news of Mr Wilson’s departure was revealed.
In March this year, Aviva scrapped controversial plans to cancel £450m of high-performing preference shares.
The proposal had been met with an angry response from investors and after reversing its decision, the company said it had acted after hearing views which included “strong feedback and criticism”.
In the same month, there was more anger when Mr Wilson agreed to take a seat on the board of BlackRock, the world’s biggest fund manager.
Analysis: By Dominic O’Connell, Today business presenter
Mark Wilson was one of the City’s rising stars, tipped variously as the next chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC or any number of other giant financial institutions.
He took over Aviva at a low point – it had languished under his predecessor, Andrew Moss – and his common sense and speedy reforms set it on the road to recovery.
But he made a bad call in backing an attempt to redeem the company’s preference shares – a form of share that guarantees its holders a generous rate of return in perpetuity. Aviva found a legal loophole to cancel the shares, drawing hefty criticism. Eventually the board was forced into an embarrassing climbdown.
In Aviva’s statement there are clear hints that this is not a planned change of the guard, but an abrupt decision.
The company does not have a replacement in place, and chairman Sir Adrian Montague will take on executive duties. There is also talk about it being time for “new leadership for the next phase of development”, a standard City euphemism for a face that no longer fits.
A successor will be sought inside and outside the company, but the bookies’ early favourite will be Andy Briggs, already at Aviva as the boss of its UK insurance division.