Ask anyone working in pensions who was born before 1960 how they got there, and you’ve a pretty good chance of getting the answer: ‘By accident’. I’m no exception!
My original plan was to become a chartered accountant. After graduation I was offered training contracts with various leading firms, all of whom apparently shared my conviction that this was the career for me. About 18 months later, the shortcomings of the interview process and my own pre-employment research became apparent and I changed career.
Keen to capitalise on the modest knowledge of accountancy and law I had acquired, I decided to train as a chartered secretary.
Enter the world of pensions
My involvement with pensions began in May 1988, when I joined City reinsurer English & American Group plc (E&A) as Assistant Company Secretary, becoming Group Legal Adviser a few months later. On my first day I was asked if I’d like to ‘do pensions’ because it ‘looks good on the CV’. Nothing loath, my bright but hopelessly under-informed response was: ‘Fine, what does that involve?’.
Over the next six years, I had a fantastic time, coupled with lots of study and training. E&A’s core business was writing reinsurance; other activities included asset management, software design and the provision of training/personal development courses to third parties. It provided insurance-related services to clients, who were primarily subsidiaries of overseas corporations wishing to establish or discontinue a London market insurance operation.
I had a wide range of in-house responsibilities, together with a portfolio of clients for whom I provided a comprehensive legal/company secretarial service. I specialised in pensions management/secretaryship, employment law and property – probably not a trio any sane person would attempt nowadays.
The hidden career benefits of winding up a pension scheme
E&A became insolvent in 1993 and I was asked if I would stay to wind up their final salary pension scheme. I was warned it would be a drawn-out and thankless task, but E&A had been a first-rate employer and staying seemed the right thing to do.
It wasn’t the jolliest period, but had major career benefits for me. A wind up is a steep and unforgiving learning curve. You don’t get a second chance to get things right; once the money has been distributed, there’s no more. My pensions knowledge increased immeasurably, which undoubtedly helped me to qualify as a member of the Pensions Management Institute (PMI) in 1996.
The workload fluctuated during the wind up, giving me the opportunity to take a postgraduate course in writing, and to provide editorial and communications consultancy services. I focused on pensions, financial and legal communications, and pursued my personal interests by producing publicity material for performing artists and collaborating on three music-related books.
A different financial service: bookmaking
Early in 1997, I took an interim pensions management job with William Hill. Within weeks of my arrival I was advising and assisting on pensions and related company secretarial matters during the sale of William Hill to Nomura. This was followed by membership of the in-house team for an attempted Stock Market flotation in 1999.
My commercial and pensions knowledge came on apace during these periods of frenzied corporate activity, but it was the outstanding management skills and business acumen of John Brown and Bob Lambert, the two men then at the top of William Hill, which made the most lasting impression on me. Working with them taught me the true meaning of those over-used phrases ‘fast-paced’ and ‘demanding’.
The knowledge that I could not only survive, but also flourish, in such a tough environment as William Hill did wonders for my self-confidence. It was the encouragement I needed to look seriously at moving away from the confines of being an employee.
Freedom, variety and a new ambition
Providing my services on an independent consultancy basis has provided freedom and endlessly varied opportunities over the last decade. A real jewel in the crown was being appointed as an adviser to the Houses of Parliament, with the impressive title ‘Parliamentary Pensions Adviser’. Not many people have that one on their CV!
In January 2008 I published my first book, Running Pension Trustee (and other) Meetings. I am working on further books and also write articles for the pensions, HR and company secretarial press. Other activities include being a policy adviser for the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, sitting on the PMI TV Sub Committee and devising regular pensions seminars.
Many people are likely to find a suitable niche in pensions and have a successful and satisfying career. Being comfortable with both words and numbers, having an eye for detail without losing sight of the ‘big picture’ and making a real effort to see things from the point of view of a scheme member are likely to be key attributes. So too are adaptability, an enthusiasm for hard work and the ability to forge good working relationships, often under extreme pressure.
I think one piece of advice holds good for all entrants to the profession: qualify as soon as you can. Membership of a professional body gives you confidence, status, contacts and, if the surveys are to be believed, much more money than your unqualified peers!