Alan Steele retired earlier this year as director of finance at the London Borough of Hounslow with oversight of the borough’s pension scheme, which has assets of £480m (€666m). He talks to George Coats about his career

What was your first full-time job - and do you remember what you were paid at the time?

I was paid £440 a year as a general office assistant at the Haslemere Urban District Council [in Surrey, south of London] back in 1966. An important part of the job was collecting the cash (pennies) from the public conveniences and releasing ladies from the turnstiles when they got stuck.

What was the best piece of advice that anyone gave you career-wise and did you take it?

When I was at Esher Urban District Council I was told by the treasurer that I had to attend a committee that night. I had never taken part in one before and his advice was ‘before you say something think twice and if it’s not worth saying, don’t say it’. And I’ve always believed in that and it held me in good stead for the rest of my time in the political arena. It’s so easy to get up at a meeting and go on and on about something that is actually not relevant. I related this when I addressed my last council meeting before I retired. I suggested it would be a way to have shorter meetings.

 How did a nice person like you become involved in a pensions career?

When, in 1990, I became director of finance at Hounslow I was responsible for a number of areas involved in local authority finance, including [local] council tax, internal audit, treasury and so on. And, in addition, I found I had to look after this thing called the pension fund. I had complete responsibility for the administration, the investment and the fund side - the whole thing. Of course, we had external managers for the bulk of the fund but we did property in-house - commercial, office, warehouse, retail, business parks - including development and building, with nine or 10 sites in the portfolio at any one time. We also administered private equity in the office, and we did all the corporate governance and share voting ourselves too, rather than leaving it to the fund managers.

What was the most satisfying achievement during your career - and why?

There were two things, one mainstream local authority related and the other pensions related. The former was when I was working at Woking council and we bought 50 acres [20.3 hectares] at Goldsworth Park, which was then the biggest housing development in Europe, and on the council land we did all sorts of building development including self-build, bringing together groups of 12 families and funding through them a development as they built their own houses. That was terribly satisfying.

On the pensions side, in the local authority world of the early 1990s after [the Robert] Maxwell [looting of the Daily Mirror pension fund] we pioneered the idea of the annual report, the annual meeting and voting the portfolio. Virtually every local authority does it now but we were very much the pioneers back then.

And what was the worst moment in your career - and why?

One of the worst was in the late 1980s when Municipal Mutual Insurance, which was the insurer for the bulk of British local authorities, failed financially and suddenly overnight we had no insurance whatsoever for the whole range from fire and property to public liability and all the other things that local authorities have to insure for. It was very stressful until Zurich stepped in and saved the day and we had insurance again.

How would you sell a career in pensions to a prospective newcomer to the industry?

I think by pointing out how important it is, especially with the sort of job that I was in, where we had the benefits as well as the investment side, and were providing a vital income to a whole range of staff. This is particularly vital income to fairly lowly paid employees. The average local government pension payout is still something like £4,000 a year, maybe a little below that, so it provides really crucial income to people who rely on you, and believe in you and what you are doing.

What would you do differently?

It’s linked to another of the worse moments in my career. For the past 10 or 15 years it seems the only thing we were doing each year was responding to government pressure to reduce local authority expenditure and make budget cuts. An early cut was removing a tier of management, which deleted the post of assistant director of finance with responsibility for the pension fund. Taking that job out was a mistake, it left us very short of manpower and we needed that post. The job would have been done just that much better if we had had someone there instead of just me and a couple of others in the office doing it as part of our job as well as everything else.

Do you have any unfilled ambitions?

The most important thing is to see my young son, who is seven, grow up. Professionally I have certainly had enough of local government. The government has worn us down by excessive centralisation. In the pensions world I think we never really got to grips with the savings issue aside from pension provision. For us AVCs [additional voluntary contributions] were never really successful or popular. Some other simply administered and understood optional pension provision still needs to be invented. If we could have cracked this problem I would have been well pleased.

Have you retired or have you recycled yourself into some new role?

I am certainly retired at the moment and I am trying to get used to a normal life and adapting to normal hours, not returning from council meetings at 10 or 11pm at night and putting on the television and finding some very strange programmes before I was able to go to sleep. So that is taking a bit of time. But come the new year I will see what happens. There are a few local activities - in the charity field and so on - that people want me to get involved with. Once you have been in public service people know you are there and get you involved. But for the moment it is the school run - taking my boy to school - and going to see school football matches on a Wednesday afternoon. In fact, having a normal life takes up time.
Your words of wisdom for those in the pensions industry?

Don’t despair, even when [former chancellor of the exchequer and current UK prime minister] Gordon Brown is stuffing you again. One of the things I found when I was clearing out my office was all the correspondence I sent to him about why he should not remove the advance corporation tax, known as ACT, which enabled the payment of tax credits for pension schemes. As we know, of course, he didn’t listen.