• Bio: John trained as an actuary before deciding that a more client facing role would be better suited to his talents. Still working in the pensions sector, John is now the Client Relationship Manager for Mercer, helping a portfolio of clients with pensions problems and devising strategy.
  • Role: Client Relationship Manager
  • Location: Manchester
  • Organisation: Mercer

John Hooton

How I discovered pensions

At university I studied mathematics and I had a dream of becoming a theoretical physicist. I now deliver solutions for clients who need my help to solve their real life, complex pension problems.

To be brutally honest, a career as a client relationship manager for a company delivering administration services to occupational pension schemes was never really a conscious decision that I came to, nor was it ever an option that my careers adviser suggested.

Life as an actuary
Like most of my colleagues, I gravitated to the industry quite by chance. My first role was as a trainee actuary, which I was introduced to as a career by a friend that I knew through playing indoor cricket. His cousin’s wife was an actuary – before this chance encounter I did not even know what an actuary was! I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned from her that day, and I continued to be pleasantly surprised after I started working as an actuary.

Unfortunately, however, I soon hit problems keeping up with the study requirements. Within a year, before I had taken any exams, I concluded that whilst I liked the pensions environment and working with clients, I would no longer pursue a career as an actuary.

Getting qualified

Shortly afterwards I joined Mercer (for the first time) as a pensions administrator. It was quickly evident that career progression was, even in administration, related to the industry qualifications that you had. Therefore, I re-committed to studying (this time to the Pensions Management Institute).

Undertaking any professional qualification is a big commitment and I did still struggle to find the time. It eventually took me eight years to qualify. I think the fact that I persevered and how incredibly proud of myself I was when I did pass the final exam is testament to how much I was enjoying my career in pensions and wanted it to be a success.

Promotion
Those were very formative years for me. I had been promoted through the ranks at work, as other factors besides exam success were taken into account – people management and client facing skills, for example.

I also quickly gained a reputation for my technical knowledge. The combination of client relationship management with technical expertise is quite a powerful tool and gained me much respect, not least from my clients. One of them tried to poach me for her in-house team. I declined, politely.

Continuing Professional Development
After years of learning through necessity, studying for exams, I felt it was still very important for me to keep my knowledge up to date. Pensions is a dynamic environment – things change very quickly, so it is very easy for your technical knowledge to become out of date if you don’t find ways to keep in touch. There is so much to keep on top of, you need to identify what is important to you … and for ‘you’ read ‘your clients’; you need to get into the habit of seeing things from the client’s point of view.

Working as a Client Relationship Manager

Over the years, I came to recognise what I do best. For me, that’s helping my clients to plan their strategy. I offer proposals for clients to consider and offer solutions when they come to me with a problem.

Whilst I no longer need to maintain such a detailed pensions technical knowledge, I do need to retain a high level understanding in order to operate at the strategic level expected by my clients.

I do try to attend seminars and discussion forums whenever I can, especially through the regional PMI group. Self-directed learning is essential and I am keen to ensure that I at least skim-read every publication that passes across my desk to check if there is something I need or want to read in more detail.

Working for a large organisation like Mercer, the level of support is exceptional and serves as a useful point in the right direction for my further, personalised research.

My role now as Client Relationship Manager is to look after a portfolio of existing business for clients with a total fixed income in the region of £2.5 million per annum. With ‘out of scope’ project work, the actual revenue is much closer to £4 million a year. My clients are very dynamic, which helps to maintain my own motivation.

25 years on from when I had that dream, I am happy with what fate dealt to me. In a parallel universe, I may have made different career decisions and I might well have given Professor Brian Cox a run for his money. But no matter how you package it, a challenge is a challenge. Who needs rocket science anyway?

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