My career in pensions started by pure chance. In July 1989, having finished my final exams for a degree in statistics and with no clear career ideas, I trotted along to a heavily hyped graduate careers fair in Islington.
1989 was the ‘year of the trainee chartered accountant’, with umpteen accounting firms greedily hoovering up new graduates. Accountancy did not, however, appeal to me (plus the competition was fierce!). Hence, over the two days in Islington, I looked at everything but accountancy – banking, stockbroking, advertising, publishing, brewing(!), electronics, insurance, aviation, oil extraction, motor car sales, manufacturing… Sadly, nothing clicked and by the end of the second day, I was desperate for a drink. Alas, my best mate, who was also trawling the recruiters, had one more stall to visit before he was free to join me, so the trip to the pub was delayed.
As I kicked my heels waiting for him, I glanced over at the powder blue stall for Noble Lowndes & Partners. They were getting little interest, so I sidled over to speak to them to kill the 15 minutes before the pub beckoned. They asked me whether I’d considered a career in pensions administration (I hadn’t). ‘You really should think about it,’ they said.
And that is how my pensions career started
I did a mini interview on the spot and then attended an assessment day at Noble Lowndes’ Croydon HQ the following week. Finding myself short-listed for a trainee position in pensions administration, the assessment process proved intensive though rooted in common sense (I later realised that this is possibly the most necessary attribute required for pensions administration).
A week or so later, a job offer followed – for what now looks a meagre salary but which seemed like untold riches to the poor student I was at the time. I snapped up the job and started at Noble Lowndes in September 1989, just two months after finishing my degree. (A tip for new graduates: get straight on with your career as taking time out to travel (or similar) after graduating means you immediately fall behind the curve. Get those ‘career basics’ covered quickly).
For two years, I went through the Noble Lowndes admin training programme, learning how to administer a pension scheme from the bottom up (and I was very much at the bottom). In parallel, I studied for the early subjects of the Pensions Management Institute’s (PMI’s)Associateship exams. (Another tip – I know it’s unappealing, but don’t delay professional exams. Get them out of the way early whilst your job responsibilities are low and your ‘ex-student’ brain remains properly attuned to study. You’d be surprised how quickly you lose those skills).
The role of the trainee pensions administrator was certainly not glamorous, but then what jobs are early in one’s career? However, unlike many graduate entry jobs, pensions admin can give you a lot of responsibility, technical challenges and client contact from the off. Indeed, it was at this stage that I learnt (often through very painful mistakes) invaluable basic business skills that I still need today running an investment management business – accuracy, prioritising, the importance of detail, clarity in communication, the ability to ask questions, not taking things at face value, financial controls, understanding the needs of the client, etc.
From early on, I had my eye on the prestige job in pensions – being a consultant. When I first asked colleagues ‘how do you become a consultant?’ I was disappointed to hear it could take perhaps ten years to claim a full consulting role. (I could become a heart surgeon in that time).
I wanted to become a consultant more quickly and therefore tried to learn as much as I could about what a consultant does and the skills they need. It seemed clear that, being a client orientated role, the core skill was the ability to communicate with clients in a clear, effective and passionate way. I therefore grabbed every opportunity I could to attend (often as a bag carrier!) face-to-face client meetings. It took two years, but I gained the right portfolio of skills and, at the age of 24, was selected as an assistant consultant – a fantastic opportunity, as I learned a vast amount from assisting two legendary senior consultants in the running of their client portfolios.
I successfully completed my PMI exams to become an Associate of the PMI in just over three years – and that catalysed my promotion to full consultant (in 1994). I had managed to go from trainee administrator to consultant in just under five years. It was at that stage that I joined the committee of the PMI’s London Region to get wider professional connections and to put something back in to the Institute. I have been involved in the PMI ever since, at committee and, latterly, elected council level. I became Vice President and then became the youngest ever PMI President in July 2007. This is a highly prestigious role at the heart of the pensions industry.
Between 1994 and 1998, I focused on expanding and honing my consulting skills, whilst managing a large portfolio of corporate pension clients, including FTSE 100 companies. During this time, my job was extremely satisfying – and involved many long days and weekend working. As the lead consultant, I was responsible for delivering advice to trustees and company boards – and for fronting up (and selling in) other services from the company (by then called Sedgwick Noble Lowndes). It involved a lot of face-to-face client work, public speaking and UK travel.
In 1995, I entered the Seeboard Business Presenter of the Year competition, a fantastic experience where, over several weeks of competition, a group of young business people was whittled down to six finalists who had to make presentations to an audience of ‘VIPs’. Somehow, I was judged the winner. I have built on this success over the years by refining my presentation technique at seminars and conferences. To present well, one needs to do much advance preparation, so it is hard work. However, a good audience reaction to a presentation always gives you a buzz.
By 1998, I had been promoted to Senior Consultant and decided it was time for a change of direction. I’d always been interested in the investment side of pensions management and excellent career opportunities were opening up for skilled consultants in the investment consulting/management world. I therefore joined the management team of Sedgwick Noble Lowndes’ (latterly Mercer’s) embryonic ‘managed funds division’ to develop a more effective investment management solution for small- and medium-sized pension schemes – the so-called ‘manager of managers’ investment approach. Since then, my career has been all about making ‘manager of managers’ investing a success in the UK.
In 2000, I left SNL/Mercer to co-found Escher TEAMS, a new specialist ‘manager of managers’ business. Starting a new, smaller business was an enormous challenge, but hugely satisfying, as you have to manage every detail of the business and make it work. You can’t blame others for the strategy you are implementing – because it’s your strategy.
My formal job title at the start of Escher TEAMS was Marketing Director – I then became Managing Director in 2002. In reality, however, in an entrepreneurial new start operation, your job description is ‘do whatever needs to be done’. My co-director, Stuart Gordon and I grew the business from very humble beginnings to approaching £1 billion under management with over 130 UK pension clients and winning three major industry awards along the way. In 2005, as the business enjoyed its most successful period ever, we sold to Close Brothers Group Plc, a well known City institution and one of the top 200 companies listed in the FTSE All Share Index. It was a very successful outcome and probably the high point of my career to date.
The business was initially rebranded ‘Close TEAMS’ and, following a merger with another, similar business, ‘Close Multi-Manager’ of which I became the Managing Director, with the key task of growing and developing the company in to a major international player. My role was always varied and the financial rewards of the job significant.
At the end of 2007, however, I had the urge to create and build another business where I can make decisions unfettered. I therefore started 2008 going into partnership with PAN Governance LLP, a specialist business that focuses on providing professional trusteeship and investment governance services to pension funds. Ironically, my business partner and co-owner of PAN Governance was a regional director of Noble Lowndes when I started in the industry all these years ago.
My job satisfaction is considerable and the future looks appealing. Yet I would not be where I am now without having taken that first step along the pensions pathway, learning as a trainee pensions administrator and sitting my PMI exams.
Finally, and I guess most importantly, I met my wife because of the pensions industry. So in some parallel universe, where in 1989 my friend didn’t keep me waiting before going to the pub, my life would be rather different.