Popcorn pensions

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I was sitting in Kentucky Fried Chicken  with my friend Mr Peter Shellswell last week. We were eating the salad in case you are wondering. Popcorn chicken and gravy is my fave but we’d decided to be good.

As it generally does, our conversation turned to what we could do with the firm that Peter part owns and I work for.

“It’s time we stopped telling clients what they have to do and started asking them what they want to do”

Peter remarked through the lettuce.

Now to anyone who doesn’t work in the arcane world of defined benefit pension plans, this would seem a fairly anodyne statement. However, so complex is the Regulation imposed on defined benefit pension plans in the UK, that we employ a team of actuaries just to keep on top of the various directives heading our way from the various bodies who tell these schemes what to do. Large parts of our organisation exist to ensure that our clients don’t stray offside/comitt a two footed tackle/make a foul throw etc.. forgive the analogy but do you really want four pages on GMP equalisation?

The thought that a client of ours might want to set up a pension plan because he or she wanted to was quite novel. Companies set pension plans up to TUPE public sector workers, or meet the demands of auto-enrolment or to compete in the labour market but nobody sets a scheme up for the general well-being of their staff- do they?

Well I suspect that many companies would love to set up a pension scheme for their staff where they paid over money from the monthly payroll and their staff got a warm feeling because the company cared about their futures and when staff reached the appointed day there were cakes and inscribed watches and a drink after work.. that’s how it should be isn’t it?

So what gets in the way. Well between the happy thought of the business owner , sitting paternalistically in his study, pipe in hand…and the point when he has the bloody pension in place comes so much hardship. So many decisions, choices, impossible choices that need money to solve, solutions to problems that you never knew you had. Selection procedures, governance committees, quality marks, staff education sessions. All the things that our clients need to have – must have if you listen to the FSA or tPR or DWP or most of all the firm of pension consultants who have employed an army of people to determine the risks you might be facing if you were so foolish as to determine to promise your staff something approximate to a happy retirement.

So I looked at Peter, blankly – with that “you cannot be serious” look on my face that I reserve for Peter Shellswell in his wilder moments.

But he was serious. He finished his lettuce and went on.

“I’m beginning to think that what matters about pensions isn’t the risks they present to the employer but their value to the staff. We never think about whether the staff value their pensions and how we could get them to enjoy them a little more”

In case you have a vision of this Shellswell character as the actuarial equivalent of Ken Dodd, prancing round the office with tickle sticks held high ;- think again. This man is a shrewd and level headed business man who is only differentiated from his fellow actuary by an appealing streak of humanity which in any other profession would be lauded as a sense of humour.

He is at his most profound when having fun, the embodiment of the Pension Play Pen. That we could imbue into the penumbra that surrounds the business of providing staff with proper retirement income, that spirit of genuine humanity, wow how much better our jobs, your pensions and the whole dull pensions infrastructure would be.

They say the child is father to the man; bring back a little childish joy into pensions and you might just have a business model your customers will want.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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