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Satisfied by sexy industry

Han Thoman recently retired as managing director of Blue Sky Group, which manages the pension assets of airline KLM and several other clients. He also stepped down as chairman of OPF, the Dutch organisation for company pension funds. He joined Blue Sky in 1999 as it was spun off from KLM into an independent entity and oversaw its move into the wider pensions market, offering its services to other pension funds, including Lucent Technologies pension fund, the BP Nederland pension fund and, from 1 January 2006, the administration and management support of the €775m corporate pension fund of Amsterdam-based office products supplier Burhmann.

What was your first full-time job – and do you remember what you were paid at the time?
I started work in 1973 in The Hague as a lawyer at a building industry employers’ organisation. I had had a choice of five possible jobs and with hindsight I think I chose the wrong one – there were no targets and neither was there speed or progress. I left after only 10 months. My monthly salary was 1,800 guilders, or more than €800, which was not bad more than 30 years ago. But what good is a lot of money and no fun and more or less unhappiness?

What was the best piece of advice that anyone gave you career wise and did you take it?
My third job was working for TG Management Consultants and for 10 years I led an exhausting life, combining the roles of internal head of its HR department and an external consultant. At that time a number of internal and external colleagues advised me to look for a job with a normal workload. And yes, I took their advice. Although my colleagues and the working environment were very pleasant I left the job. I had a good time and I left with pleasant memories, but nonetheless I was wise to leave and I was able to take my health with me.

How did a nice person like you become involved in a pensions career?
After TG Management Consultants I joined the chemical company DSM where I was responsible for the collective agreements with the trade unions and was head of the labour conditions department, which included pension schemes. After five years of this I was asked by the board to assume responsibility for the pension insurance company and the DSM pension funds and prepare for a broader career. Initially, I rejected the proposal but in fact the board had come up with a good idea and who was I to refuse? That’s how I entered a very exciting part of my career and I am very happy that I accepted that challenge.

What was the most satisfying achievement during your career – and why?
I brought to the pension world my experience in management broadened by knowledge of the financial sector, and a well-balanced combination of these two areas helped me do the job. My seven years of running the DSM pension funds were really enjoyable. Some elements of the job were repetitive and in 1999 I was asked by a headhunter to join KLM to execute the process of setting up a new organisation, separate from KLM, to run the three KLM pension funds. The idea - establishing an organisation dedicated solely to the pension fund issue and operated just by professionals - was good, clever and fit for purpose. KLM was looking for the best available manager who was well versed in the pensions sector. I took up the challenge.
The path was not always smooth but we did the job and made a success of it. Today the Blue Sky Group - the name of the organisation changed in 2001 - provides services not only for the KLM pension funds but for other clients not linked to KLM. I was also honoured to be asked to chair OPF, the organisation of company pension funds in the Netherlands. I consider that leaving DSM for KLM and to simultaneously chair the OPF is the ultimate combination for a real blue sky job in pensions.

What was the worst moment in your career – and why?
I don’t remember any really bad moments, I more or less focus on the bright side of life. Every day I try to pick up the positive items and forget the negative ones.

How would you sell a career in
pensions to a prospective newcomer to the industry?
At first sight the pensions sector may appear to be boring, but when one becomes more involved I think one could characterise the industry as being ‘sexy’. The speed of changes is breathtaking, the challenges are incalculable. So if one is a professional and willing to become part of an interesting new world, join the pension scene. It’s hard work to explain an unknown world to clients from different backgrounds, but it’s worth all the effort. Pension fund members, pensioners and pension fund board members will be grateful for your services and that gives you both your daily energy and immense job satisfaction.

What would you do differently?
I think differently is not the right word when considering a possible new start in pensions. With hindsight, joining the world of pensions came at the right moment in my career and it came at a time when the pensions sector began to move and change quicker than ever. So, looking back I’m very satisfied.

Do you have any unfulfilled
ambitions?
Generally speaking, I would say that there are no professional unfulfilled ambitions. The time has come to fulfil the unfinished desires, like visiting Russia and travelling from Moscow to China via Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Express, which I intend to do next spring.

Are you retiring or are you be recycling yourself into some new role?
It’s not a question of retiring ‘or’… Yes, I am retiring and at the same time I like being active, using my professional background. So, for example, I plan to become the independent chairman of a pension fund and a consultant of a pension fund board.

Your words of wisdom for those in the pensions industry?
I assert on a daily basis that a pension fund is the most efficient vehicle to execute the pension promise of an employer, so keep to the right path. We are still doing that in Holland.

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