• Bio: Sara Cook works as head of Mercer's outsourced pensions administration technical team. She is a fellow of the PMI and serves as a PMI council member. Sara is on the Commercial Development Committee and also chairs the PMI Media Sub-Committee. In 2011 she was elected to the Board of the Pensions Administration Standards Associations.
  • Role: Technical Analyst - Pension Administration
  • Organisation: Mercer

Sara Cook

I studied law at university. It was not until part way through my degree that I decided not to follow the conventional route of becoming a barrister or solicitor. The subjects I studied as part of my degree were varied and interesting. I enjoyed the detail contained within, and impact of, legislation change and the case law built up around it. The legal subjects I studied included administration, employment, and trust law.

After graduating, I considered numerous career paths including accountancy and pensions administration. I decided that pensions administration interested me most as a career and I joined Sedgwick Limited’s pensions administration team. Fifteen years and a couple of mergers later I found myself working for Mercer as a Group Pensions Manager responsible for three teams of pensions administrators, providing services to around 30 pension schemes and managing the client relationships for the larger schemes.

In 2004 I left the third party administration sector and went to work in-house for a large multinational organisation as their UK Group Pensions Manager. This role provided me with an opportunity to widen my experience. I worked directly with three trustee boards, the company’s executive board, and managed the relationship with their third party administrators and defined contribution providers. The role also involved working within a heavily unionised environment and explaining pensions to members and their dependents on a face–to-face basis. This experience gave me a valuable insight into how non-pensions professionals and the person in the street view pensions. Generally, they consider them to be overly complex and difficult to understand.

In 2008, I rejoined Mercer as a client relationship manager within its outsourced pensions administration business. My role involved acting as a single point of contact for a portfolio of clients to whom Mercer provides a simplified scheme management service, overseeing the delivery of actuarial, administration, investment and trustee services.

In 2011 an internal vacancy arose, which enabled me to move over to head Mercer’s outsourced pensions administration technical team. The technical team provides support and guidance to Mercer’s clients and our internal colleagues on the impact that legislation changes and industry developments have on the administration of pension schemes.
Typically, my role involves:

  • Keeping up to speed with government and regulatory body consultations and considering the impact that they might have on pensions administration.
  • Participating in working groups that consider the wider impact of legislative change as well as from an administration perspective.
  • Drafting and reviewing technical educational updates for colleagues.
  • Supporting colleagues with specific queries.
  • The production of client briefings explaining forthcoming changes and how they will impact on the administration of their pension schemes.
  • Delivering trustee training.

I am a fellow of the Pensions Management Institute (PMI) and serve as a PMI council member. I am on the Commercial Development Committee, which is responsible for commercial events organised by the PMI. I also chair the PMI Media Sub-Committee, which determines the topics that are covered in PMI News.

In 2011, I was elected to the Board of the Pensions Administration Standards Association (PASA) for a two year term. PASA have set out standards covering those areas of scheme governance and administration that impact on good member outcomes. Pensions administrators that demonstrate how the practices they adopt achieve good member outcomes in relation to those standards can apply for PASA accreditation.

What does the future hold for pensions administration?

The pensions landscape has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, proving my initial instinct that a career in pensions would be interesting correct. The framework governing pension schemes is likely to continue to change as the provisions in place are adapted to suit the changing needs of employers and members alike.

With the phased introduction of automatic enrolment from 2012, employers will be required to make an automatic enrolment arrangement available for employees meeting certain criteria – although employees retain the right to opt out. The majority of open pension schemes are now defined contribution arrangements. From an administration standpoint such changes inevitably require technical support in assessing the impact on systems, processes and documents.

Apart from automatic enrolment, the abolition of trust based defined contribution refunds, is on the horizon (possibly as early as 2014). Whichever of the suggested solutions for handling the inevitable rise in small pension pots is adopted, the detailed provisions will need to be reviewed to determine the impact they will have on the way pensions administration is carried out. My team is also currently monitoring anticipated changes to the requirements for defined benefit contracting out and the State pension framework.

Trustees and client sponsors of pension schemes now have an increased awareness and appreciation of the importance that good administration plays in delivering good member outcomes. That continued focus is good news for those of us working in pensions administration and emphasises the key role we play.

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