Peers acknowledge the ‘constant gardener’ of European pensions

koen de ryck

This year’s winner of the Award for Outstanding Industry Contribution goes to Koen De Ryck. He was the clear favourite among the 18 candidates who were on the list that IPE readers were asked to vote on. That comes as no surprise, given his dedicated service that can be measured in decades. He could well be described as the ‘constant gardener’ of European pensions, always believing in the potential of what for too long was a neglected aspect of the EU’s financial framework.

Even before he explicitly set his focus on pensions, his background in asset management, both in Belgium with Banque Bruxelles Lambert (BBL) and later in New York, meant being involved with pension fund clients. In fact, he pioneered the move of BBL into institutional asset management in his native country very successfully. Hard on the heels of coming back to Brussels from the US and setting up his niche asset consulting firm Pragma Consulting in 1989, he became the permanent representative of the European Federation for Retirement Provision, the lobby group for the national pensions associations, giving it a presence in Brussels.

Arguably he became the most influential person in European pensions of his day. De Ryck acted in a pivotal role, at a critical time, as the European Commission’s ham-fisted attempts to tackle occupational pensions issues had been thoroughly rebuffed by a number of member states and it looked a if the Commission had lost the plot. As De Ryck said: “Our role was to work with the EC and the European Parliament, with one key objective to get the message home that pensions were to be distinguished from the other financial institutions. This meant educating officials at both EC and national levels.”

He certainly rose to his challenge. His report on behalf of the EFRP, published in 1996, European Pension Funds - their impact on European capital markets and competitiveness, at the request of the Commission, helped produce a new sense of direction at the Commission. Later, De Ryck could say with complete justification: “This was the source of inspiration for the eventual pensions green paper.” The marks of his thinking and that of the EFRP were very much in evidence in this document.

Koen de Ryck: acted in a pivotal role at a critical time, as the European Commission’s ham-fisted attempts to tackle occupational pensions issues had been thoroughly rebuffed by a number of member states

When global custodian State Street wanted promote the ‘Rebuilding pensions’ initiative following the green paper, the Commission suggested that De Ryck become involved. The report of the same name, which he authored, appeared in 1999, followed by a series of road shows across the capitals of Europe. This exercise, which certainly smoothed the path for the directive, resulted in De Ryck appearing on platforms across the EU.

His ubiquity in this period in the cause of pensions was an amazing one-man mission. He was indefatigable in his pursuit of this goal - always looking for the liberal solution, but in a context that recognised the tradition of solidarity and consensus essential in continental countries. Whether it was doing presentations, making speeches, participating in seminars or contributing to journals, he was willing to go the extra distance. Since 1973, it is reckoned that he contributed over 300 articles, reports, presentations and studies. This August he finalised a another report, Pension issues in the new member states, always ready to take the discussion to the next stage.

Another time he was in the thick of things, again sharing the podium with politicians where necessary, was when the question of pension reserve funds surfaced, as in Norway, Ireland and Belgium and later France. He argued relentlessly that their portfolios must be run according to classical investment management principles. Their assets must be ring-fenced from political influence - lest, when times get hard, there would be a temptation to use the funds for more ‘pressing needs’ than longer-term pension support.

His activities have not been confined to Europe. He has appeared before the US Senate Budget Committee to discuss pension liabilities and funding issues. He has been brought in by such prestigious bodies as the World Bank and OECD to look at what the lessons of the European experience might be for countries such as China.

And it does not stop there. On the domestic front he has been a founder member of the Belgian Association of Pension Funds, as well as being on the first Belgian commission on corporate governance.

Even when it came to establishing his own asset consultancy business Pragma Consulting as a niche operation as far back as 1989, when such ventures were a novel departure on the continent, he came to it with a unique vision: of establishing this business as a pan-European operation. One of the legacies from his time in the US, he is on record as saying, was to view Europe as one market. True to his principles, Pragma has had clients in other countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK.

De Ryck has said that perhaps he would have been a wealthier man if he had set up an asset management operation rather than a consultancy. He might well have been richer, but Europe and European pensions would have been significantly less developed and poorer than they are now without his outstanding contribution.