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Super chiefs speak out

Columnist
— 1 minute read
Forty super fund chiefs spoke out at the recent CIE Fund Leaders Forum. Frank Gullone examines the feedback.
Throw about 40 leaders of the investment and superannuation industry into a room in the wake of the global financial crisis (GFC) and inevitably you will spark debate - interesting, fascinating, almost therapeutic debate.

Certainly this is what happened at the Centre for Investment Education's recent Fund Leaders Forum when chief executives and chairs gathered over two days to share insights on where the industry has recently come from and is now heading.

There is no doubt the GFC has got these industry leaders thinking. Deeply. Although the superannuation industry emerged relatively unscathed from the biggest crisis in financial markets since the Great Depression, no-one is feeling sanguine about the industry's future.

There is a realisation that tough issues lie ahead, and now is the time to prepare.

Take governance, for example. Although there is general agreement that there is no one-model-suits-all approach to governance, there is a strong sentiment that boards, in partnership with the chief executive, should be more involved in this issue.

Indeed, it reflects a sentiment that chairs, and their boards, should take a more strategic role in their organisations and not simply react to events as they unfold.

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Thinking along these lines, of course, leads to some inevitable questions. Do boards have the skill set to tackle such issues? What skill set should they have? What various skills should sit around a board table in this industry? What training do they require? What industry experience? The list is as long as your arm.

Inevitably, there is no one answer. But there is a consensus that if boards are to play a more active role, then an individual director needs to be better equipped to handle it and directors should be prepared to undertake the necessary learning to achieve it.

It doesn't mean board members should be equipped with the investment knowledge of the chief investment officer; it does mean they understand enough about the investment markets to ask the right questions and to be able to assess the merits of the answers.

Fund size and relevance to members are occupying their minds too. Interestingly, there is resistance to the notion that bigger is automatically better for members. Although there are obvious economies of scale that come with size, there is also the belief that there is an important role for niche super funds to play.

Members identify their industry with their fund; it gives them a sense of belonging to a fund that has their industry's best interests at heart. It isn't just another amorphous organisation.

One scenario for larger funds is the potential for them to morph into a financial services organisation, thereby being in a position to expand product range and relevance to members.

Above all there is no debate that funds need to keep in constant touch with changing member sentiments, needs and demographics to maintain relevance. Investment returns are not the only reason a fund member can exercise their choice-of-fund option.

The relationship funds have with service providers received some airplay. There is a realisation that outsourcing can not only generate efficiencies but provide the organisation with access to a skill set that may otherwise be beyond its budgetary limitations.

That said, there is a sentiment that some organisations allow their service providers to become too dominant in the relationship, and that the senior executives and boards can become too accepting of their views. In these circumstances, a more proactive approach to the relationship may be appropriate.

It's a fine line, of course. Long partnerships between service providers and funds can be very beneficial; good working relationships develop that add real value. But even if it's working soundly, periodic reviews can offer peace of mind to both parties.

 

Super chiefs speak out
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