Robin Ellison, the incoming chairman of the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF), may not be the first UK pension person to lose their bearings in Brussels.
But he’s almost certainly the only one to actually get completely lost in the Belgian countryside. It occurred when he was en route to a European pensions conference last year – and he found himself at the wrong end of the country by mistake. Only a series of frantic phone calls and a midnight taxi ride got him safely to his destination. “Only Robin could get lost like that,” an observer said at the time.
Perhaps the most interesting point about Ellison’s Belgian adventure is not the fact that he was lost but that he was there in the first place. He is clearly prepared to get out and about on the ‘mainland’. He has a European frame of mind and his call at the recent NAPF annual conference for a ‘coalition of the willing’ chimes in with the consensual approach favoured at European policy-making institutions.
The coalition he is thinking of is a way to address the myriad problems facing the UK pensions industry. His idea is to reach out beyond the confines of the industry to other bodies – such as the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry. The coalition would then be able to present a united face to propose reforms to the government.
He proposes putting together a “manifesto” that will seek to join up pension policy. He thinks people are so angry at the lack of progress that the other organisations will be interested in participating.
He was named chairman in December and took over from Terry Faulkner in May this year at the NAPF’s annual conference in Manchester. He had been in the running for the post alongside Ray Martin, head of pensions at Scottish & Newcastle.
At the NAPF Annual Conference, only one day after stepping in Faulkner’s shoes, Ellison seemed to have worked out an action/battle plan for the next few months.
“We will work in tandem with any other organization, the TUC Trades Union_Congress, the ABI [Association of British_Insurers], the CBI [Confederation of British_Industry], pension consultants – you name an organisation, we desperately want to work with them.”
The aim of such a 360 degree co-operation would be to create a broad consensus and point out solutions to the pension crisis.
“So that we can say to the government: ‘We, from the left, from the right, from the centre, from think-tanks, from policy guys, practitioners, collectively feel this is the way we need to go.”
Projects apart, Ellison faces numerous and daunting challenges. They include the possible fallout from the Pension Protection Fund and the Financial Assistance Scheme, the further erosion of the defined benefit pension promise and the growth of defined contribution. And then there’s the full report from Adair Turner’s Pension Commission, which is expected in autumn.
Not only that but September sees the implementation of the European occupational pensions directive. Wearing his lobbyist’s hat, he will have to deal with a government pensions department now headed by the feisty David Blunkett. And then there’s the Myners Principles on institutional investment. Not to mention the changing nature of the pension consulting and asset management market.
So all in all that’s quite an in-tray for a two-year term. He made his views known about some of these issues in a speech at the NAPF’s Investment Conference earlier this year.
He told the meeting: “Maybe Myners was a bold step, but a step in the wrong direction. Maybe we don’t need trained trustees.” He argues that embodying trustee expertise in legislation discourages people. Conversely, the government wants 50% of trustee boards to be nominated by members. Ellison wants Myners to be reversed as it was the “wrong execution” with “unintended consequences”.
And he warned about the potential impact in the UK of the pensions directive. “If we don’t get our act together here then multinationals and even nationals could hop over the Channel.” He said schemes could go abroad, forced out by over-regulation – with Ireland and Iceland as possible destinations.
And he expressed concern about what he termed a kind of a “hate-fest” against pension consultants. With this in mind, he has put forward an idea for an “investment consultant-lite” approach for smaller schemes which don’t have the buying power of larger plans.
His key aim, he says, is to “develop a solution” to the problems currently facing the UK pension industry during his tenure. “I think there are answers,” he says.
He has identified the problems as complication, regulation, “forum shopping” and extra expenses. He added the NAPF would have to work more closely with the “multiplicity of associations” in the industry.
There can be few better-connected or more well-known people in the UK’s pensions field - being a prominent pensions lawyer, author and company director. The NAPF chair is the latest of a succession of roles.
He is a member of the Confederation of British Industry Pensions Panel and was a founder of the Association of Pensions Lawyers. In 1997 he was the first solicitor elected as an honorary fellow of the Pensions Management Institute.
Ellison’s day job is at London law firm Pinsent Masons, where he is head of strategic development for pensions. In this capacity he specialises in the development of pensions and related products for insurers and other providers. He also looks after European pensions, pensions trustee law and pensions in matrimonial matters – as well as being a trustee of several pension funds.
Before becoming NAPF chairman he was vice-chairman of its Benefits Council, and was a founder of the Association of Pensions Lawyers.
As well as all that he is also an author, whose publications include ‘Pensions Law and Practice’ and ‘Family Breakdown and Pensions’. He is also the editor of ‘Pensions Benefits Law Reports’.
And as if that was not enough, he is also visiting senior lecturer at Kings College London. He appears frequently on radio and television discussing pensions matters.
Aside from this he is a director of the boards of a number of companies. Among these are Pendragon Professional Information, which provides technical information to pension funds and financial services advisers. He also finds the time to act as a trustee of several pension funds.
Unusually perhaps for a lawyer, he envisages a radical simplification of pension legislation, arguing that the legislation that followed the Maxwell pension fund scandal was “overkill”.
Ellison is a personable communicator and his media experience will stand him in good stead given his new high profile. He is adept at using wry humour to illustrate his points and had delegates at a recent NAPF conference laughing with his presentation. The danger in this approach is that Ellison might unjustifiably be seen as too ‘lightweight’ when it comes to swimming in the murkier shoals of UK pensions politics. He will need to use all his personal charm and professional expertise to help him out when the going gets tough.