Brian Scythe was engrossed in the latest draft of his triennial pension valuation when a face appeared around the door of his office.
“Mornin sir” said the face- an old grizzled face that appeared out of an unflattering set of overalls. “I was wondering, seeing as you have an open door policy, if I could have a word”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have the pleasure…”
“Drudge sir- Harry Drudge- I’m your janitor you see and we’ve just had a meeting downstairs about you closing our pension scheme…”
Scythe reached for the telephone but realised his secretary Mrs Allison would not be in yet. What was Plan B?…”look I’m busy now Drudge, perhaps…!
“Perhaps you could spare me a few seconds to explain why you’re having to close the scheme sir?”
Well it’s like this Drudge, we’re doing this in the best interest of the staff, the company has engaged some very talented advisors to ensure that you have an equivalent benefit going forward so you’ll be none the worse for it…”
“Don’t buy that sir, I’m 57 sir and 8% of my pay ain’t going to buy me a 60th of my salary sir”
“Well no Drudge, there will be winners and losers but overall…”
Drudge had now advanced sufficiently into the room for Scythe to see he had no intention of leaving, Drudge sat himself down beside his desk and produced from his pocket what appeared to be a set of accounts …….the pension scheme accounts.
“You don’t need to patronise me Mr Scythe, you see I understand about the deficit and that, and I know you are working on our funding plan because I read what you said in the last newsletter. What I wanted to know was what you’d done to take precautions..”
“Precautions?” Scythe didn’t like the sound of this- it was what his wife had asked him on discovering his latest peccadillo.
“You see I’m a gardener and I show vegetables Mr Scythe; so I know about these things. Every winter I look at my patch and work out what I’m going to grow next spring, some crops grow well when it’s wet and some when it’s dry and there are greenhouses and cloches and so on and what I’m about is having a good range of crops so whatever happens with the weather I’ll have something to show in the summer”.
“We call it diversification” smiled Scythe, relieved that his premonition had been wrong.
“And another thing Mr Scythe, I always take precautions with the other lads on the allotment so as I have what my wife wants each week. If my courgettes don’t flower I can have a word with Bill whose got plenty and I can swap something I’ve got too much of for his courgettes, I keep tabs on all my produce every week and me and the boys have got a right good system for keeping the women happy – if you know what I mean..”
“Yes, well we’re much the same with our pension scheme” replied Scythe, we have far too many pensioners who don’t seem at all willing to die on time, I’ve just arranged for an investment bank to take them off our hands for a small consideration”.
“You referring to a longevity swap Mr Scythe – or had you something more brutal in mind?”
Scythe considered this comment, did Credit Suisse offer a contract killing service? If so he would put this man at the top of the list.
Then something rather strange and awkward happened. Mr Drudge undid his overalls to reveal a natty Hermes tie and a smart tailor-made shirt. He pulled from his chin a rubber mask to reveal Stephen Hawthorne, Scythe’s new assistant, an accountant blessed with youth, good looks and extraordinary humour.
“Don’t be taken aback Mr Scythe” said Hawthorne in his usual assured fashion. “Mr Drudge may be a figment of my imagination but there are many like him among our staff, Mrs Allison for one. Don’t think for a moment they buy this line you are spinning. We all know that we can’t afford this pension scheme, I’ve told them that you have problems planning any long-term project for us because the pension scheme gets in the way.
Mrs Allison made the point beautifully, she told me “it’s not Mr Scythe that’s running the company it’s the pension scheme”. You and I have been pouring over the details of this valuation, we know the risks, we have done all we can to reduce them but still we can’t afford to rack up these debts.”
“So what should I do” said Scythe, startled by Hawthorne’s plain speaking.
“This sir. You should go to your staff and explain the situation. We are a family firm, we’ve been around for 120 years, the staff want jobs and they want their friends and children to have jobs and they want our product to be competitive and not have this pension deficit hanging around our necks.”
“You tell the staff that the new DC plan requires them to understand pensions and do it themselves but you refuse to share your knowledge of running the Final Salary scheme. They don’t get it- they don’t trust you.. they think you are pulling the wool over their eyes.
Every man jack out there understands risk, they weigh up decisions just like you do- to take out a mortgage, to have a child, to buy sausages or steak for the Thursday meal- we just have to find the language to explain our decisions in a way that makes sense to their everyday lives.
Scythe seemed to be gripped by something between panic and elation. Sharing his work with others was not something that came easily to him. Discussing the pension scheme with his staff in terms of what really mattered was something neither he, nor his trustees nor his advisers had even contemplated.
There was another knock on the door, it was Mrs Allison who had just arrived. Mr Scythe looked at her from under his glasses and said something he had never said before
”Mrs Allison, can I have your opinion on something?”