Like many in the pensions industry, I came into it by accident. In my case, this was brought about by the attractions to a Yorkshireman of working for a Scottish financial institution. All that being ‘canny’ with money was an irresistible lure.
Not cut out for a career in sales
The reality dawned when I found myself as the office tea-boy who, in between keeping the typing pool (yes, there was such a thing in those halcyon days of the early 1980s) in supplies of caffeine, was put in charge of the office computer. This behemoth required reprogramming between calculations and, on a good day, could churn out twenty, or sometimes even thirty endowment mortgage quotations.
Having demonstrated my incompetence with what passed for leading edge technology back then, I was promoted to ‘inspector’ – in short a glorified insurance salesman. However, instead of treating ‘objections’ as mere stepping stones on the path to ‘closing the sale’, I found myself agreeing with the hapless members of the public who had placed their faith in me. I would come up with practical solutions to their financial problems as I sat across their kitchen tables from them. This often failed to include buying any insurance products from my company. Inadvertently I had found my calling – I would become an independent financial adviser (before anyone had thought to coin that sadly misused phrase). This did, however, prove terminal to my relationship with the august Scottish financial institution.
Coincidentally, I had discovered that pension schemes involved a lot more people, and money, in a single deal than the individual saving plans. I decided this was the field for me and joined Noble Lowndes (now part of what was then its arch-rival Mercer) in Croydon – a move referred to by friends as ‘doing a careerist runner south’.
Learning my trade
I spent two years administering final salary pension schemes. Few benefit calculations were automated and, as a result, I learned through repeated manual calculations the complex and often conflicting interactions of tax and social security legislation. All this stood me in good stead when it came to passing the exams of the Chartered Insurance Institute (Pensions Route) and the Pensions Management Institute.
Having, I thought, learned my trade, I joined the new pensions practice at Price Waterhouse (as it was then) to advise their corporate clients. Here I was very lucky to work for Trevor Llanwarne, currently the Government Actuary, whose intellectual grasp of not only the technical aspects of pensions, but also the relationship side of building long-term clients, was a major influence on my own development.
The economic downturn of the early 1990s, which I see echoed and magnified in the current ‘credit crunch’, introduced me to the work of Price Waterhouse’s insolvency practice. I found myself as the pensions ‘expert’ dealing with both the financial and human costs of the collapse of companies. This was in the days when an insolvent employer could mean the loss of your job and the loss, or a significant reduction, of pension rights built up over many years of contribution to the scheme. The task of explaining this to shocked and sometimes tearful employees is a sobering experience I shall not forget.
The rise of defined contribution pensions
After a short-lived stint failing to fit in with the Arthur Andersen culture, which I found to be quite aggressive, I joined Watson Wyatt (now Towers Watson), specialising in the upcoming and trendy ‘defined contributions’ pensions. It was comforting to be part of an organisation surrounded by people for whom the description ‘brain the size of a planet’ was accepted as the norm. I did feel the need to improve the quality of my actuary jokes though, if I were to hope to hold my own in such company. (Example: Q. How do you tell an extrovert actuary? A. He looks at your shoes instead of his own when he talks to you.)
Watson Wyatt’s client-base is ‘to die for’ and I found myself part of teams advising clients as prestigious and diverse as Microsoft, the BBC, Transport for London, Pearson and Dun & Bradstreet (D&B). Here I learned the true value of teamworking where teams could include not only my Watson Wyatt colleagues, but also those from the client and from third parties providing services to the client. Bringing together the right blend of talents from different organisations was the great new challenge.
Branching out on my own
After we sold the partnership at Watson Wyatt, I took the opportunity to take a year out and study for an MBA at the University of Bath. This enabled me to broaden my experience beyond the pensions ‘silo’ and research employee commitment issues in the complex working environment of the 21st century. My dissertation won the Intel Prize in 2008 and formed the basis papers that I have presented at the US Academy of Management’s 2009 Annual Conference in Chicago and the Europewide HRM Network 2009 Conference in Amsterdam.
On completing the MBA I set up my own consultancy which advises on a range of employee issues and provides independent trustee services. The trustee experience for me is akin to that of a poacher turned gamekeeper. As a former adviser to trustees, I am wise to the ‘tricks of the trade’ which, I believe, is helpful to my clients in managing their adviser relationships to get the best value services from them.
Learning from the experience
In my career I have worked for parts of two of the ‘Big Four’ accountants and two of the three leading global actuarial firms. You might think a duller prospect harder to imagine but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it has been tremendous fun, not least because of the people I have worked with – colleagues, clients and others. If it has taught me anything it is to value what everyone brings to the team. That and the need to speak to people about a subject, that many find scary and difficult to understand, in their own, everyday, language. If you keep these things in mind, you will build a successful and rewarding career in an exciting and challenging environment.