Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid attends a trustee meeting

Confessions

If there is one thing guaranteed to put me on a downer, it is going to the quarterly trustee meeting. I was flattered when Big Bad Boss first sent me in his place. The consultants we use for our defined benefit (DB) plan hold the trustee meetings at the Shard, London, and I imagined champagne lunches and smoked salmon sandwiches. My imagination was quite wrong.

To begin with, the Shard is much more interesting on the outside than it is inside. The reception is a grey, windowless, narrow room which reminds me of a corridor connecting parts of an airport terminal. There is even a baggage screening machine. I am told to take off my shoes and hand over my laptop as though going on an international flight. I get twitchy when parted from my computer and I keep a close eye on the person in front. The security guard reminds me it is to protect us from terrorism. I am not particularly comforted to think I am in a building considered a such a high-risk target for radicalism. Gulp.

Getting started

Our trustee meeting is on the 13th floor. Unlucky for some. I wonder if the conference rooms will live up to the building’s fancy reputation. Well, sadly the rooms look like just about any other corporate office. There are plenty of windows offering views of other corporate offices that look just the same as this one. It’s a large room set out in a boardroom style. Far from modern, the style is positively ’80s retro with dark wood furniture and venetian blinds. Disappointing

Smarmy Consulting have already set up their camp at the head of the table, and they have a presentation ready to start on the screen. I am one of two corporate trustees and there are two other member-nominated trustees who are usually good for a laugh. I wonder what’s in it for them? Time off work and an expenses-paid trip to central London? Would we like coffee? Oh yes. I’d love a latte. I get a filter coffee with powdered coffee creamer. Ugh. I am devastated to find there are no pain au chocolat, not so much as a stale biscuit to break the fast. I wonder how much we will be charged for this meeting. Even without frills, I doubt this room will come cheap.

Smarmy Consulting kick off with statistics on investment performance and risks to the scheme. The funding percentage has swung even lower than shown at the last meeting. I know that our finance team are hoping to improve this to the point that we can look at de-risking the plan altogether, but it looks like it is going to take much longer than we thought.

Telling a story

Despite the poor investment performance (resulting from their advice), Smarmy tell a great story of how bonds, equity and property investments have all moved in unexpected ways, and performance could have been so much worse had we been invested differently. All data is based on a date some time ago and they assure us that the position has subsequently improved a little. Oh well, that’s all right then.

There was a time that I wanted to be become an actuary, as they seem to hold a higher status in the world of reward. Now, I just think they learn a special vocabulary which allows them to explain the unsatisfactory performance of our pension scheme. Would it not be better to learn how to actually improve the performance of the scheme?

I will confess something to you here: I always feel a bit out of my depth at these meetings. I do understand individual terms used: asset allocations, longevity risk, and my favourite: trivial commutation even though I did my trustee training some time ago. I even get the concept of how the actuary tries to balance investments to ensure that the company can pay the liability to its members on retirement. However, I still suffer from imposter syndrome. I am quite sure I could ask a question and it would be apparent to everyone in the room that I don’t have a clue what I am talking about. So, I mostly keep quiet. Often, I am saved by the member-nominated trustees jumping in with the very question I cannot bear to voice. They have no such qualms about stupid questions; in fact, they are quite generous with them. I suspect Big Bad Boss would feel the same as me. He might know a little more about pensions than I do, but he would be under even more pressure to know it all. He also has little tolerance for tedium, and let’s face it there isn’t much more tedious than a room full of actuaries trying to justify their existence.

A real job

Things pick up a bit when we get into administration as I love getting involved in member requests and complaints. Helping real people like this feels almost like a doing real job for a change. I tune out again when we get to the scheme business plan as it seems a repeat of everything we have discussed so far.

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Finally, just when I think I can’t keep my eyelids up any longer, we break for lunch. I have given up hope of a fancy meal, but I am still disappointed when it arrives. A sulky-looking girl crashes in with a trolley bearing a few tiny rolls filled with dried up ham, followed by miniature cakes so hard I am worried about my fillings. It’s so like flying economy, I am wondering if they’ll bring round the duty-free later on. In a way this was prophetic, because Smarmy present us with a goody bag to send us on our way. Predictably, it contains a Smarmy brochure for each trustee – I am getting quite a collection now – and an embarrassingly cheap and nasty Smarmy pen. I shall give both to Big Bad Boss so he has a little taste of what he missed.

Next time… Candid gets a recognition award.