Geof Pearson, manager and secretary of the £3.8bn (€5.5bn) Sainsbury pension fund, retired recently after 18 years with the scheme.
1. What was your first full-time job - and do you remember what you were paid at the time?
I come from Hull and so there was a kind of inevitability that one might end up in the port transport or the fishing industry, and I did just that. I left school at 16 and worked for trawler fishing enterprise J Marr. My first wage was £4.50 per week, working 8 o’clock to 5 o’clock Monday to Friday and every other Saturday morning.
2. What was the best piece of advice that anyone gave you career-wise and did you take it?
Both my grandfathers told me not to move jobs. To be fair, one of my grandfathers worked for the same employer, Manley Hopkins, for over 50 years. However, I changed jobs after 10 weeks because although I liked working in the fishing industry I didn’t like smelling of fish. Besides, it meant crossing the city on my bike every day and one wet evening in September 1965 my brakes did not work - I didn’t have any brakes really, I used to do it with my feet - and me and my bike went under a lorry. Luckily I survived and I chose to ignore the only piece of advice I was given.
3. How did a nice person like you become involved in a pensions career?
One of my grandfathers was manager of a shipping insurance office and my uncle was the school’s career adviser for the insurance industry. But neither helped me get a job in the insurance or pensions industry, pensions being a sub-division of insurance in those days. Instead, from the age of 18 to 25 my job involved calculating redundancy and pension payments for about 4,000 dockworkers in Hull and Manchester. And inevitably I began to specialise in pensions. I must say that niceness had little to do with it, it was more a masochistic streak.
4. What was the most satisfying achievement during your career - and why?
I am very pleased with what I did on the green issue but I think my number one was helping sort out the scandal over the mis-selling of personal pensions. In the mid 1990s I put together an idea called the Bulk Transfer Initiative to help resolve the problem for those who had been mis-sold a personal pension by reinstating their pensions back into the former occupational scheme. I have to say that the idea only worked because a strong alliance was formed between Sainsbury’s, the mineworkers’ pension scheme and the post office workers’ pension schemes and then it spread from there to other employers.
5. And what was the worst moment in your career - and why?
The worst moment was 1973. I organised a free trip for 400 children of dockworkers from Manchester to Knowsley Safari Park near Liverpool. I had arranged for four differently coloured buses and ensured that all the stewards and children were colour co-ordinated so that they all got on the right bus and were properly accounted for, which they did. At the safari park the stewards gave me a standing ovation, which was very moving but a bit premature because when it was time to go home we discovered that one six-year old boy was missing. We sent the buses back to Manchester, because the parents were waiting, while two stewards and I stayed behind to try to find the missing boy. After half an hour we were getting desperate, but we eventually found him staring at the lions in their enclosure. Worryingly, the lions were also staring at him.
6. How would you sell a career in pensions to a prospective newcomer to the industry?
I wouldn’t. I’d tell them to be a footballer or pop singer - anything but work in pensions.
7. What would you do differently?
I left school at 16. By the age of 26 I was married with three children and had earned a BA degree from the Open University. I also had a career as a football referee and would eventually make my way onto the Premier League and represented England on FIFA’s panel of officials. I also obtained professional qualifications, pensions qualifications and became vice-chairman of the National Association of Pension Funds.
Inevitably, I got the work/life balance wrong. All of my children graduated from university but I missed one of the graduation ceremonies because of NAPF business and looking back I regret that. Apparently, when my son obtained his degree he got much the biggest cheer of the afternoon and I have often wondered why that might be, but I just wasn’t there.
So, looking back if I could change things I would not have given so much extra time and effort to my employer because I don’t think it was understood or appreciated. I think lots of people don’t get the work/life balance and I certainly made that mistake.
8. Do you have any unfilled ambitions?
Yes, lots and lots.
I have had a book of poems published and I’ve written lots more that I want to publish on the internet. I am also writing a love story, a sort of modern Kama Sutra. I’ve written over 12,000 words so far and my wife does the illustrations.
I’ve also written about 400 songs and would like to record them properly. And earlier this year I appeared on Sky Television’s Soccer AM programme and won £260,000 in a Coca Cola competition. So I donated £250,000 to my favourite football team, Hull City, to hep it buy a new player and I used the rest of this windfall to make a CD to record my songs. It’s just been completed and will be released later this year. It turned out much better than anybody has got the right to expect given that I am singing on it - it’s amazing what you can do with auto-tuning nowadays. Having said that I have no expectations of any success for the CD, which hopefully immunises me from disappointment, disillusion and discontent.
9. Are you retiring or are you be recycling yourself into some new role?
I don’t believe in retirement; I only believe in life and death. So I believe in pouring all the energy I used to pour into pensions into achieving what I really want to do now. I don’t have an occupational pension myself but I have enough money in an income drawdown plan to give my wife and I all the freedom and resources we need. So as long as luck and life force are on my side I feel very fortunate.
10. Your words of wisdom for those in the pensions industry?
Forgive me, but I’ve put I wouldn’t deign to put any words of wisdom and I’ll tell you why. When I was a youth it amazed me that my father, who was a dockworker but a very clever man, did not seem to think like I did and therefore there were plenty of arguments and disagreements between father and son. When I became a father I had the same problem with my son as I’d had with my father. Once I saw the two of them chatting merrily together and saying something I fundamentally disagreed with. So I told them I thought it was a great pity that wisdom seemed to skip a generation. They both looked at each other and agreed with me.