Sara Benwell talks to JP Morgan’s Stuart Cobb, winner of trustee of the year about the role of MNTs

How did it feel to win the award?

It was really exciting. And it was nice to get recognition for the work that we do. As a trustee a lot goes unrecognised, people take the work that trustees do for granted.

Stuart Cobb

The award was for trustee of the year, and it’s certainly been a crazy year for pensions, how have you found it?

It gets harder each year in terms of the time commitment trustees need to put in. It’s a very challenging environment economically, politically and legislatively - there’s so much going on and trying to understand how all of those components fit together is challenging.

It takes time to stay on top of those issues to understand what the impact is going to be on the membership and what we need to do as trustees to ensure that we get a good outcome for them. Each year the level of intensity goes up and this year is no different. 

Many schemes struggle to recruit member-nominated trustees. How did you get involved?

I knew very little at all about pensions 14 years ago and felt that it would be a good way to get a better understanding, and also bring a sense of what it’s like to be a member to the board.

The board don’t face the same challenges that individual members face”

The board don’t face the same challenges that individual members face, as a member-nominated trustee it means that you’ve got more empathy for the decisions that you’re making and how they’re going to impact the membership.

When I came on the board I was a relatively junior member of staff and fairly young as well and pensions is an area that people think is for older people.

I felt coming in not knowing much about pensions would be helpful from my own perspective but also from the plan’s perspective.

How easy is it to balance the demands of trusteeship with a full time job?

You’ve got to have an understanding manager. It’s challenging because there’s an awful lot of reading you need to do, so just staying up with what’s happening in the industry is one aspect of it, but another aspect is the papers.

I’m on the investment committee and I chair the member communication committee and I’m also a member of the board which means there’s a meeting at least once a month plus the training. So in real terms it’s at least one day a month of full-time activity. And then you’ve got to balance that against the job.

I manage a team internationally, so I’ve got staff in India the UK and the US and trying to balance all that together is challenging  because you’ve got the demands of managing staff around the clock.

What’s your advice for someone thinking of becoming a trustee?

I absolutely encourage people to do it. It’s given me so many opportunities to operate as a director, as opposed to a line manager. It’s a very different skill set so from a personal development perspective it’s a fantastic opportunity. 

It’s given me so many opportunities”

For anybody who wants to grow their career and become a senior manager or a director, being a trustee is a great way of doing it. You’re effectively running a business, so you’ve got all of those aspects that come with running a business such as investment and compliance.

For me it’s been invaluable and I really enjoy it. I like the engagement that we have with members and our advisers and the investment managers and it really does give a broad set of opportunities.

What is the achievement you’re most proud of?

Personally my greatest sense of achievement is our engagement with the membership.

We’ve got very high levels of engagement, very few members opt out of the plan and we have very high levels of matching contributions. Over 75% of our membership does matching from the employer which I think is very high from an industry perspective.

My greatest sense of achievement is our engagement with the membership”

I think we’re unique in the fact that we’ve got a communications committee. That was set up about three years ago off the work that I’ve been doing to really push the whole communications agenda.

It’s all well and good us making decisions on the board and investment and compliance committees, but if you haven’t got an engaged workforce you’re really not getting the most from that decision making.

If you were pensions minister for a day – what would you change?

I would try and bring some long-term consistency to pensions so that the membership can have confidence that the decisions they are making today will stand when they come to retire.

Stop the constant tinkering and get it to a more stable platform where people can actually know with confidence the outcomes that they are like to receive. Sadly I think that’s not the case at the moment. The government is making so many changes that it’s very difficult to convince the membership that saving for their retirement is the right thing to do when there’s a lack of trust there.