NEST’s chief executive is building on the workplace pension scheme’s success, as she tells Jenna Gadhavi
Having spent the best part of her career in the industry, it’s fair to say NEST’s CEO Helen Dean knows a thing or two about pensions. And it’s little wonder that she is so invested in the company: before taking up the post of CEO in 2015, Dean also held the roles of executive director of product and marketing, and managing director of scheme development at the organisation.
She really has been there since day one. Dean was even a board director of NEST’s predecessor body, the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority (PADA).
But despite all this, when I meet with her at the NEST headquarters by Southwark Bridge, I don’t know what to expect. In contrast with her predecessor Tim Jones, Dean has kept a low profile since becoming CEO.
“It’s simple - just take charge and do the right thing”
She is quietly confident to begin with, but just a couple of minutes into our conversation, it’s apparent just how passionate she is about the changing face of pensions and what it means on ground level.
First up, I ask her for her thoughts on The Pension Regulator’s annual DC Trust report that revealed DC membership has surpassed that of DB schemes for the first time.
She says: “The pensions landscape has transformed as a result of auto-enrolment. Seven million have been auto-enrolled, 9 out of 10 of those have stayed in. The success of that has been enormous, but that does mean lots of people are saving in pensions for the first time.
“They came in through inertia and many of them aren’t that conscious of what they’ve got, so where do we go next? Auto-enrolment is just the start. How do we start to engage people, and get them to think about the adequacy of their saving?”
NEST has some impressive performance figures to shout about. In September 2015 it had around 40,000 employers, 2.3 million members, and £600,000 assets under management (AUM). That has now grown to over 275,000 members, 4.3 million members and £1.4bn AUM.
So how does it feel to be head of such an organisation? Dean is modest with her answer. She says: “NEST is in my blood. I always say that I didn’t join NEST, NEST joined me! But I really don’t think of NEST as being my achievement, I think my job as the CEO is to be the facilitator, and create an environment where great people can do great work.
“So when I think about what makes me proud, at the risk of sounding cliché, it’s not my achievement, it’s what the whole team at NEST has done.”
Even prior to working for NEST, Dean was a senior civil servant for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), where she was responsible for the Informed Choice initiative, which contributed to the UK government’s decision to implement auto-enrolment, and then on the policy development and legislation that established the current UK pension reform agenda.
Words of wisdom
Having been with the organisation for so long means that she could benefit from watching her predecessor in action. I ask Dean what the best piece of advice former CEO Jones gave her when she was appointed. She says: “He told me do it in my own way, be yourself. Every CEO has their own way of doing things.”
Commenting on a particularly memorable piece of advice given to her during her time at the DWP, she says: “Once when I was about to start a new job I went to my manager – another woman – for advice and she said “it’s very simple really - just take charge and do the right thing”, and that advice has stuck with me throughout my career.”
Fewer, better run schemes
The Pension Schemes Bill will have a big impact, says Dean, but it’s definitely a move in the right direction.
“We’ll see standards improve, quality improve, and some consolidation. So we’ll see fewer schemes, but they’ll be better run.”
She thinks that making sure that schemes are licensed to operate and the right people are running them, and making sure members are protected when schemes wind up are all key. At the heart of everything schemes do, members’ interests must be protected.
“At the moment we’re looking at primary legislation so we’ve not seen regulations yet. It’ll be interesting to see what those regulations say and what the detail looks like.”
It’s clear to see that Dean wants to make a difference. She may not shout the loudest about her organisations achievements, but she is definitely a force to be reckoned with.