A financial services giant is conducting a national search for a new leader.

Ramani Ayer, 62, will be retiring from the posts of chairman and chief executive officer at Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., Hartford, at the end of the year, the company says.

Ayer, 62, has worked for Hartford since he graduated from Drexel University in 1973. He has been the chairman and CEO of the company since 1997.

Hartford reported a $1.2 billion net loss for the first quarter on $5.4 billion in revenue.

The company has announced plans to restructure its international operations and its variable annuity program, to reduce exposure to VA benefits guarantees.

Hartford also has announced plans to participate in the Capital Purchase Program, an arm of the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program. The government says Hartford is eligible for up to $3.4 billion in assistance.

“We have recently made a series of important decisions about The Hartford’s path forward, setting the company on a new strategic course to build value for our shareholders,” Ayer says in a statement accompanying the announcement of his departure. “With this clarity in place, it is the right time for me to make my plans for retirement and for the board to begin the search for my successor.”

Michael Morris, Hartford’s lead independent director, says Ayer has provided strong leadership in tumultuous times.

Ayer has “worked closely with the board to develop a strategy that has put the Hartford on the right path for the future,” Morris says in a statement.

NAVA, Reston, Va., has put out a statement of its own praising Ayer.

“The Hartford, like all institutions tied in some way to the financial sector, has suffered recently,” NAVA President Cathy Weatherford says. “With Ramani Ayer’s help, however, the Hartford is well-positioned to thrive in the future. I look forward to a new, dynamic head of The Hartford to take the helm next year and a smooth transition to take place. Americans rely on companies like The Hartford to bolster their retirement security through insured retirement solutions. And they’ll continue to count on them even more in the coming years as they look for flexibility and guarantees in these turbulent economic times.”