The past five years have not been good for the millions whose long-term financial security depends on Britain's big insurance companies.

Some of these once copperbottomed organisations have failed their policyholders disastrously.

Returns on with-profits funds, a staple of the British consumer investment market, have in many cases shrunk to nothing and the vast majority of people who depend on endowment policies to pay off their mortgages are in trouble.

We also have the spectacle of what remains of Equitable Life pursuing its former executives in a prolonged and massively expensive court case in an attempt to hold them to account for the guaranteed annuities scandal.

And earlier this week, policyholders' anger at the way

Standard Life is being run spilled over at its annual meeting in Edinburgh.

An organisation that was once prepared to defend its mutual status to the death is being forced to float on the stock market to recapitalise after seeing its solvency called into question.

Standard was forced to crystalise losses by selling shares at the bottom of the post-millennium bear market and buy safe but low-yielding bonds - just at the time that it was expanding rapidly by wooing customers away from Equitable. Standard's rebel policyholders failed in their bid to storm the boardroom, but executives had to swallow much humble pie on top of their lunches.

In contrast, the directors' lunch after the Wesleyan AGM at the Burlington Hotel in

Birmingham today should be a much more convivial affair. The reasons are not hard to find. Although the Wesleyan is a much smaller organisation than Standard - it has assets of £3.5 billion compared with Standard's £100 billion - its finances are in far better shape.

In fact, independent consultant Ned Cazalet, whose utterances are carefully scrutinised, recently awarded the Wesleyan Assurance Society a rare ten out of ten financial strength rating.

While with-profits funds across the board have tumbled, wrecking the retirement dreams of millions of policyholders, the Wesleyan scored gains of 17 per cent in 2003 and 14 per cent last year.

It may operate from a stylish, angular, granite and glass building in Colmore Square,

but it has remained faithful to the thrift ethic of Birmingham's Wesleyan Christian community from which it emerged 164 years ago.

That meant it had plenty in the kitty to ride out the bear market and maintain its 70 per cent-or-so equity loading without having to incur the losses suffered by its less provident peers. As chairman and former chief executive Lowry Maclean puts it: "My Scottish Highland ancestors always put a bit aside for a rainy day - and there are a lot in Scotland."

That caution also ensured that Wesleyan was not seduced by the high tech

stocks bubble of the late '90s and kept its cash safe.

"We prefer dot.assets to dot.coms," said Mr Maclean. "So we invest in companies with good brands, skilled employees and a strong market position."

The upshot has been that the Wesleyan has been riding the market upturn for two years now, but, as today's AGM will hear, the time to take some profit out of the market may be approaching although the society will retain its above-average shares weighting.

Joe Roderick, the Wesleyan's company secretary and financial accountant, was

among the 800 policyholders at Standard's meeting.

"The management was very contrite and apologetic for what had gone on, and acknowledged they had produced some very poor results," he said.

"They said the new business arising from the near-failure of Equitable Life had caused a huge drain on their resources. "Their need for capital means they have had to scrap their mortgage endowment promises whereas we have just extended ours to 2010."

Another key difference between Wesleyan and the likes of Standard is that its executives earn their pay and bonuses the hard way - by improving the wealth of their policyholders.

While Standard chief executive Sandy Crombie has foregone bonuses of £524,000, his Wesleyan counterpart Frank Brooks, who retires today, collected a total of £234,000 last year, including bonuses and benefits.

"We do not reward failure," declared Mr Maclean. " Bonuses are paid for meeting certain conditions and are linked to the performance of our with-profits bond.

"Our executives get one third in cash up front and the remaining two-thirds is paid over a period of time. It means that if our policyholders benefit, so do our executives.

"We have a strong board of non-executive directors and all our executives are required to report to the board both on paper and in debate on all significant matters affecting the society, which was not the case at Equitable.

"Although they are on oneyear rolling contracts we would resist paying a year's salary to someone who left because he had misbehaved or underperformed."

Policyholders at today's meeting will also hear the Wesleyan is ahead of the game in other key areas. Its sales force has been retrained ahead of schedule to conform with the new polarisation rules, and £10 million has been set aside to invest in IT equipment and staff development.

This will be overseen by new chief executive Craig Errington, aged 41, who takes over from Mr Brooks. Paying tribute to Mr Brooks's stewardship, Mr Maclean said: "He has been one of the strengths of the organisation."