January 4, 2013 5:34 pm

Stop the music, it’s time to talk pensions

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Nest chief aims to strike a note with savers
Tim Jones, CEO Nest©Charlie Bibby

He has a degree from Cambridge university, a string of high-profile jobs on his CV and currently heads a new pension scheme set to balloon to billions of pounds under management. Yet you could hardly describe Tim Jones as a typical City executive.

In the week I met him, he was due to play lead guitar for a rock band at London’s famous music venue, the 100 Club. He collects amplifiers and owns a modest Renault Clio as well as a Jaguar XF.

It is fitting that the chief executive of the quango charged with providing low-cost pensions to millions of reluctant new low-income savers is just as comfortable performing in jeans in a Soho club, as well as in a suit overseeing a pension scheme from Canary Wharf.

“Our savings message is not preachy,” says Jones. “It’s saying to people, let’s just stop the music now, let’s just talk about how we get you to where you want to be in retirement.”

Jones was recruited in 2007 to the body which oversaw the development of the National Employment Savings Trust (Nest). In 2011 he became chief executive of Nest and took on the role of distinguishing the scheme from established private sector schemes – both in the way it communicates and its investment strategy. But Jones has had some tricky and contentious ground to negotiate.

Nest was set up by the government to underpin its radical programme to get millions of workers saving into workplace pensions, through auto enrolment.

CV – Tim Jones

1973-1976: Christ’s College, Cambridge, honours degree, in history and philosophy of science.

1976: Shell UK Oil Limited as graduate business analyst

1978: Lucas CAV Limited as senior business analyst

1981: Forms rock band called the Deckchairs and gigs around Sussex for nearly two years

1983-2000: National Westminster Bank in a variety of roles reaching head of retail banking

2000: forms Purseus Limited, a company focused on a new and simple architecture for ACH and Correspondent Banking payments.

2002-2005: Recruited to lead Simpay

2006: Co – director of the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation

2007: Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, chief executive officer

2011-present – Nest, chief executive officer

It’s low-cost, simple, no-jargon approach has won clients including fast-food giant McDonald’s and Compass, the catering group, with 6,000-7,000 new savers signing up since October, when auto enrolment was launched.

But commercial restrictions placed on Nest, including an annual contribution cap of £4,400 and a ban on transfers, are proving a turn-off for many employers.

“My guess is that the restrictions have lost Nest about 500,000-1m members,” Jones concedes.

“Employers are basically saying: ‘This is difficult enough. I don’t want a restricted product’.”

But Jones, who once headed retail banking at NatWest, won’t be pressed into criticising the restrictions.

“I’m just the delivery guy,” he says. “Our job is to tell the government what’s going on so they can make a balanced decision about what to do, if anything.”

The government is now considering whether to lift these restrictions as they may inadvertently be locking out Nest’s target market of moderate to low-income workers. But Jones says any change would come too late to influence the 20,000 or so smaller-sized firms who should be choosing their auto-enrolment (AE) schemes now.

Jones reckons that when AE is fully rolled out to all employers by 2018, up to 3m workers will be members of Nest, down 4m or so on his original estimate.

Most of those - around 90 per cent - will be placed into Nest’s default Retirement Date Funds.

These funds have been criticised by some advisers as being too cautious in the early years when young savers should be taking most investment risk. The growth phases, where members will spend the majority of their accumulation within Nest, are designed to outpace CPI by just 3 per cent.

But Jones argues that insulating his target market from market shocks is “absolutely the right approach” because most Nest investors are not very engaged with their retirement savings.

“Our target market is wonderful . . . they are clever people,” he says. “They are interested in their lives, but pensions are a low-interest product in a low-interest topic area, called financial services.”

When I suggest that this might be slightly patronising, as savers could get to grips with volatility, he counters that I am being “middle-class” and “posh”.

“You are interested in investments. It’s not what our target market is interested in,” he says.

“I don’t have a middle-class desire to get them there for their own good. They’ll get there themselves and the path to getting them there themselves is, in my opinion, a 20 or 30-year path.”

“But one of our core values is empowerment. If you do get interested and engaged, you can go to our website and choose a higher-risk fund option. There is nothing stopping you from doing that.”

The conservative investment strategies will also be counterbalanced by low costs, which matter enormously over the long time-frames of pensions. Jones agrees with the growing calls for scale in the sector, arguing that bigger schemes could bring down charges.

“In my opinion, automatic enrolment will precipitate significant consolidation of workplace pensions anyway. Which, in a sense, is getting us all to be where we want to be, because you will be able to see a scale player like Nest come through that can create an award-winning investment strategy at 50 basis points.

“Why does scale matter? Because you need to get your costs down. The game here is not to take a penny more than you need to from people’s pension pots.”

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