Confessions of a benefits manager: Burying the hatchet

Candid is charged with closing the company’s DB pension scheme, and it’s suddenly a race against time to avoid a £50 million penalty

I am glad to say it is not every day I get a call from Hatchet Woman. She is probably a nice lady, it is just that wherever she goes, locations are closed, even whole businesses are divested. So when she calls, you respond very carefully.

Thankfully, it seems I am not directly in the firing line, but one of our UK businesses is now for sale. The trouble is, it is one of two organisations still holding out in the old defined benefit (DB) pension plan. No buyer in the world is going to take that on, given that it involves £50 million of unfunded liability. That is where I come in: Hatchet Woman wants me to close the scheme. Just like that. Oh, and I need to close it for both entities at the same time, or, because of some nasty pension legislation, the company will need to make good the £50 million. No pressure, then.

Finally, when we have done all the consultation, we can go ahead and close the plan. I ring our legal advisers, Dullard and Longwinded, to check what happens next. For once, their advice is succinct: just amend the pension trust deed to show it is closed to future accrual. Easy.

Dullard makes the first draft of the deed amendment and I send it directly to the trustee lawyers to check. The trustee advisers, Doddering and Sons, find a ton of mistakes, mostly involving words like ‘but’ which should be changed to ‘and’. I send the new version back to Dullard and Longwinded, who proceed to change all the instances of ‘and’ to ‘with’. I am caught in the middle of some kind of preposition fencing match.

At that moment, Hatchet Woman calls and reminds me I have only two weeks left to get the deed completed and signed, or the company will have to pay that £50 million. Yikes.

I hassle the trustee lawyers to reach an agreement. But Doddering and Sons don’t like the last changes made, and so they change a bunch of words like ‘with’ to ‘thereof’. Touche.

I realise we have just spent no less than four weeks getting this wretched document drafted. All I can say is we must have really great advisers. Any old lawyer can rack up more chargeable time than is really necessary, but it takes a really outstanding lawyer to spin it out this long.

Now I know our Higher Beings, the management team, are spread across the world, and given that they spend most of their time on the golf course, it can be tricky to get important documents signed in a hurry. So I had the document drafted in such a way that we can get multiple copies signed simultaneously. The trouble is, I don’t know which Higher Beings can sign them.

More chargeable hours

To find out, I forward the document to Mrs Pedant, the legal secretary. She immediately spots an error on page one, and also wants to know how we are supposed to date the document. Another couple of chargeable hours to Dullard and Longwinded ensue. Hatchet Woman calls again to see if I have the document signed yet. Er, nearly.
Mrs Pedant offers to co-ordinate the signature process. But I am soon horrified to find she has sent only two copies: one for the US and one for the European guys to pass on to each other. That could slow things down. I can hear the Pensions Regulator rubbing its hands at the thought of that £50 million.

Hatchet Woman calls again to see if I have the document signed yet. Er, not quite. I can sense that someone, somewhere is writing out my P45.

I ring Mrs Pedant to see if the US signatories are done. She isn’t there, because today is a public holiday in the US. Aaagh. I ring the first European signatory, Pierre, to see if he has signed it and sent it on to the guy in Germany. Pierre’s answerphone tells me he is on vacation. I am beginning to panic; there are only 10 days to go.

Hatchet Woman calls again to see if I have the document signed yet. Erm, almost.

I track down Pierre’s secretary, who gives me his mobile number. The poor guy is on the beach. I beg him to sign the document first thing on Monday and send it recorded delivery to Germany. I ring the guy in Germany and tell him to sign it the minute he sees it and then to send it directly to our lawyers, so we can get it certified.

Hatchet Woman calls again. No, I haven’t got the thing signed! And I haven’t slept, either. Finally, one day before the deadline, I get confirmation from Mrs Pedant and the guy in Germany that their copies have been signed and sent to Dullard and Longwinded. I ring Mr Dullard to confirm.

I am told Mr Dullard is on holiday. It is possible, at this point, that I let out some inappropriate expletive. Slowly, through gritted teeth, I ask if someone could look at his post. She goes off to check. Yes, they have received all the necessary documents. Does she think, I suggest tactfully, that someone else in the team could certify that the document is signed, thus saving my company £50 million and ensuring my short-term employment? Thankfully, she thinks they can.

Hatchet Woman calls again. I tell her the document is finally signed. Funny, she doesn’t seem all that pleased.

Next time…Candid facilitates goal-setting.

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