On track for a new future
What was your first full-time job - and do you remember what you were paid at the time?
I joined the socialist metal workers’ trade union straight from university in 1986 and was paid BEF52,000 - that’s €1,200 - a month. My professor in applied economics was also working as a national adviser to the union and he recruited me. During my time there I conducted negotiations for all the metal union’s branches and became an expert on the car industry.
What was the best piece of advice that anyone gave you career wise and did you take it?
Perhaps the best advice I have been given has been at this point and it was to stay where I am, not leave but build on what we have developed in the sector scheme so far. It is an interesting period now, the basis of the scheme has been laid but there is a lot of work still to be done. But I haven’t taken the advice. I am looking for another challenge.
How did a nice person like you become involved in a pensions career?
It was through my experience in the sector as a union negotiator. The employers came to know me through the negotiations I had conducted and they apparently appreciated my approach. So they asked me to come and reorganise the social fund and at the same time to begin preparations for starting a new sector pension fund. Their initiative in agreeing to propose somebody from the union side came as quite a surprise to both the unions and to me. But the fact that I knew both sides has really served me well.
What was the most satisfying achievement during your career - and why?
This must be the creation of a new tool to allow pension funds or social funds to consult and download data on salaries paid to employees that all employers send to the Banque Carrefour, the government organisation that collects this information for the social security system. We developed this tool to enable the sector pension schemes to work. This is the culmination of three years’ work and it is very gratifying to see that it is functioning correctly.
And what was the worst moment in your career - and why?
I think it has to be at the end of 2002 when, because of a failure when for the first time employers tried to make use of a new electronic system to arrange payments to employees, the workers did not get their year-end bonus, what we call the 13th salary. They got the money eventually but I think that there was one week when they were prepared to lynch me.
How would you sell a career in pensions to a prospective newcomer to the industry?
Well, it is still very exciting; things are developing so fast. Sector pension funds in Belgium have adopted different approaches: some have gone an insurance route with a link to an insurance company for their asset management, some have established themselves as real pension funds and some have chosen an in-between solution. But the main characteristic is that it is moving all the time. Then we have a new pensions law, which is intended to attract multinationals to domicile pan-European pension funds in Belgium. So it is a very dynamic situation and people in the industry now can help shape things for the future.
What would you do differently?
Perhaps move faster to the fully-fledged pension fund stage. For our first five years our investment strategy has been to go with an insurance company, which has been a no-risk way of ensuring we met the 3.25% guaranteed return on contributions that we are obliged to provide by law. The problem is that we have no say at all on the insurer’s investment policy. We have still decided to work for the next five years with an insurer but to participate in the investment policy so we can learn about offensive investment strategies. The final stage will be when we formulate and execute our own strategy. It is good that we are doing it three stages but perhaps we should have gone faster. The problem was that when we started there was no legal framework in place.
Do you have any unfulfilled
Yes. When I was president of the organisation for sector funds we created a forum to try to organise the exchange of information between sectors - because sector schemes are a new development there is still no structure where they can talk to each other. When you look at the sector schemes it is clear that in the long run they will become the big players but we do not talk with one voice. But we encountered opposition from the insurance companies, the trade unions and the employers.
Are you retiring or are you be recycling yourself into some new role?
I am recycling myself into a completely new role. It’s a life change. I will be moving to the south of France and opening a chambre d’ hôte and a gite in a converted railway station, which can be seen on www.lereposdelagare.com.
Your words of wisdom for those in the pensions industry?
I really think that social partners should get even more involved in pensions. Through their pension funds’ investment policy they have a responsibility to the economy and not just at a national level but on a European scale. It’s one thing to talk about ethical investing and another to ensure that the metal workers and electricians take it with them as an investment policy because they will become large volume players and they have to take care of these issues.