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26 July 2019

First impressions

Helen McEwan joined USS on 1 April, having previously held a variety of senior roles at Aegon. She has also served on a number of executive boards including the pensions technology platform, True Potential, the master trust NOW: Pensions and Edinburgh Young Carers Charity. As well as her executive role with USS, Helen is an independent Non-Executive Director at The Exeter, a mutual friendly society offering healthcare and protection insurance.

As Chief Pensions Officer, Helen is responsible for all pensions related activities, including business transformation and operational strategy, product development and delivery, operations, member communications, and client engagement.

When I was offered the role of Chief Pensions Officer at USS, the high calibre of its people and its commitment to quality and value really appealed to me.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on if and how my initial expectations, shaped from the outside looking in, have been met or changed over the course of my first 100 days in post.

I think most people would agree that the learning curve in a new job is steepest at the very start. While I have extensive experience of working in the pensions and finance sector and with trustee boards, every organisation comes with its own culture, identity and circumstances. Gaining a thorough understanding of USS’s universe has been a hugely beneficial experience over the past three months, and is critical both to my role and the teams I am here to lead.

It has quickly become very clear to me just how passionate and conscientious my colleagues are about the job they are here to do and the people and organisations they are here to serve. USS is a very human, collaborative, and supportive place to work. There is a high level of integrity and competence, a clear (and shared) sense of purpose, and very clear structures and processes driving everything we do.

Evidence of this came shortly after I arrived at USS, when we became the first ‘hybrid’ pension scheme to secure Master Trust approval. This reflects the high standards already being met by the trustee in running the scheme on behalf of universities and in protecting members’ benefits.

But as welcome as that authorisation is, we have our sights set even higher: our vision is to be a ‘Best in Class’ pension provider, with a high performing in-house fund manager, making the utmost of our scale and expertise to deliver a high quality service, value for money, and secure retirement benefits for our members and sponsors.

As a minimum, this demands that what we offer meets the needs of our members, our sponsors and our regulators, and that our processes and services meet their expectations too – and the pensions’ side of the business, which I lead, has a key role to play here.

We can only meet the higher bar we have set if we truly understand what is needed from us, what is expected of us, and what is demanded of us – so it is vital that we engage as effectively as possible with members and employers alike on the art of the possible, not least given the increasingly rigorous regulatory environment we must operate in.

While I have inherited a very strong position with employers – 80% of whom rate their overall relationship with USS as good or very good – the funding challenges all defined benefit pension schemes face, evidenced by our recent valuations, have clearly impacted members’ perceptions of the scheme.

It is entirely understandable that being asked to pay more for the same is not a welcome message – but that is the reality we face, as trustee, when we look to invest contributions today in order to fund members’ benefits in the future.

We can – and must – therefore be more effective in the ways we engage with members and employers on these issues because there is much to gain from being a member.

USS offers benefits that are now vanishingly rare in the private sector, and it has also leveraged its size and scale to achieve very good outcomes in terms of its investment performance and investment costs.

As we only have one client to serve, the benefits and services we provide are relatively bespoke to the needs of the higher education sector. While this translates as a high quality service with relatively high scheme costs (on a per member basis) there is a relentless focus on delivering value for money across every corner of the organisation.

We are not afraid, however, to invest in the right interventions.

For example, we are actively improving the ways members can engage with us and the level of “self-serve” facilities available through our digital channels. This is an ongoing journey but will give members greater access to, and control over, their USS pensions so it is absolutely an investment worth making.

As USS looks after every steps of its members’ journey to, and through, retirement – from payslip to pension – we are also focusing a great deal on what members need from us at different stages so we can best tailor the services we provide to align with their needs.

What I have seen in my first 100 days is that our people are key to our success, and we absolutely do have the skills, capabilities, culture and commitment required to deliver good experiences and good outcomes.

There are certainly challenges, but we are well-placed to address them and I am looking forward to working with our stakeholders and my teams to deliver a ‘best in class’ service to our members and our sponsoring employers.