A life in pensions with no regrets
What was your first full-time job - and do you remember what you were paid at the time?
In 1968 after too many years at university I joined what is now TeliaSonera, the national telecom provider, as a statistician and I was paid SEK2,549 (€274.50) a month.
What was the best piece of advice that anyone gave you career wise and did you take it?
I do not remember anyone giving me any such advice and I would not have been too keen to take it. My problem has been that, at least in other people’s minds, I have too much confidence, which has resulted in tougher assignments and some criticism.
How did a nice person like you become involved in a pensions career?
‘Nice’ is not the description that comes to mind. Nevertheless, in the 1980s when I was HR vice-president at Vattenfall the government started to privatise some 40% of the group and since I had experience in negotiations, benefits and changing systems they came to me for advice. I had to calculate the debt, finance the old obligations and, because we could not buy insurance, establish a way of financing the new obligations.
With the help of old university friends who had gone into government I set up a system. Just when I had that in place the government announced that the rest of the firm was to be privatised. I wrote a memo to the CEO pointing out the problems that would arise and suggesting that he put a group together to deal with them. His response was to ask whether I would take care of it. It felt like I was in the army, where somebody makes a suggestion that is in fact an order; saying no was just not an option. So the group of people was me. And I also kept my old job, it was as if it was considered a minor detail. But I refinanced SEK2.5bn, set up insurance for 12,000 people, renegotiated a pension agreement and took care of all old obligations in a proper manner. I’d started in 1991 and it was up and running by 1 January 1992.
What was the most satisfying achievement during your career - and why?
I have had a few. In 1998 I set up a Pensionsstiftelse, which is more like an investment vehicle than a pension fund in that it is a legally independent entity into which the employer pays the contributions but which has no liabilities because the sponsor carries all the risks. I was elected to represent one of the trade unions on its board of trustees, because at the beginning they had nobody that they thought was qualified. I took it as a compliment that with my background as a negotiator for the company they had shown that amount of confidence in me.
I was asked to continue as a union representative when I retired but I suggested they find somebody else because I won’t live forever although I said I could help somebody new to do the job.
But on my retirement the CFO asked me to represent the company instead. That was also like a personal achievement. Setting up everything in 1991 and having it up and running by 1992 was more surprising than satisfying, I probably did not understand what I had set out to do and never had time to ponder.
And what was the worst moment in your career - and why?
In 1980s my then boss did not accept a deal I made with the unions on a benefits package and so I put my job on the line. Pride, quality, respect, you can call it what you like, but I could not go on and not get an acceptance from my employer of the arrangements that I had made. If you’re a professional negotiator and you walk into a room with the unions you do the best you can. Afterwards I told my boss that the day he came in at 8am and stayed until 5 pm five days a week he could demand obedience, but that that was not to be expected from me in the absence of guidance and instructions. In the event he was ordered by his superior to either quit or back down and he decided he did not want to quit.
How would you sell a career in pensions to a prospective newcomer to the industry?
I don’t know. But you would have to give them intellectual support and a free hand to meet other people in the industry. Usually you are more or less alone in a group or a bigger company. Since I have worked with almost all aspects of pensions I have found that there is almost no place to learn or study the subject. People from insurance companies are sales people who have little or no insight over and above the requirements of their job. It takes a lot of effort and an enormous amount of time to really learn how these things work. So a young person would need a mentor and a firm would need to hire an older person in that capacity. People from the actuarial profession are probably more prepared but it is not all about numbers.
What would you do differently?
Not much - other than demand more pay. As long as you do everything to the best of your ability and try to sort out the sale pitches from the real knowledge you’ll probably get it right most of the time.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
No, I would not say so
Are you retiring or are you be recycling yourself into some new role?
At 65 after 29 years and eight months I decided that I did not have anything more to prove, and so I retired. Going over 30 years would have been pathetic. But I know that retirement is not a career goal, it is drab by definition and deprives you of a lot of fun. So now I work as a consultant with a few old friends. I do not make a lot of money, but it is fun. I could not play golf six days a week anyway.
Your words of wisdom for those in the pensions industry?
I do not know if I ever considered myself wise, but here goes: The pension industry has not defined for itself the various areas that are more or less full-time jobs and a lot of actuaries, accountants, investment professionals and sales people appear under false colours. For anyone new this is very frustrating and makes the learning process unnecessarily long and hard. It would help if the news media sorted out a few of these difficulties.