Modernising the SPP

Hope William-Smith
clock • 11 min read

The Society of Pension Professionals is looking to make dynamic changes in a bid to stand out from the growing number of trade bodies catering for a dwindling audience.

There is no doubt that pensions professionals have a raft of options to choose from when it comes to selecting a trade body to approach for guidance, information or advice. Those at the forefront of the Society of Pensions Professionals (SPP) are more than aware and tell Professional Pensions the organisation is taking steps in a new direction from this year to ensure the sustainability of their competitiveness and broaden their reach across the sector.

Isio partner James Riley will take the helm as president from 1 June, replacing Aon partner Paul McGlone who will reach the end of his two-year tenure this month. Another addition to the public face of the SPP is its first chief executive (CEO), Fred Emden, who began in the new role in March.

Emden says the communication and public-facing position McGlone has established as president will remain as so under Riley's tenure, while the CEO role will be a primarily operational and strategic venture.

Even prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 and its subsequent global impact on markets, the SPP had strategically developed the position of CEO, anticipating one of the busiest years to date for pensions in 2020.

McGlone describes Emden's arrival as coinciding with "a critical juncture" for both the society and the wider industry, with industry initiatives having taken the regulatory and policy backburner in favour of Brexit throughout 2019.


Balancing new roles

Emden is set to play a pivotal role in consulting on technical issues, roundtables, evening meetings, engagement with policymakers and regulators, and will take the helm at the SPP's annual conference.

"I see my role as CEO as being positioned to look at the organisation's whole strategy, and of course working with those developing the strategy with us," he says. "I will be looking to work really closely with James, as I have already started with Paul, and I think all our complementary skills for the two roles fitting together will be pretty powerful."

He adds the president role is still the "industry leader" and "industry figurehead for the SPP" however. Riley will also be held responsible for assessing how the society's CEO is performing, and how Emden "sets up and delivers the operational goals that will allow [the SPP] to achieve a strategy" that is effective.

Emden says: "As CEO, I'm seeing myself as getting my hands dirty and into all the areas of the business to develop our goal of modernisation and to drive great value for the members."

While the SPP senior figures agree it is unclear how the coronavirus will affect schemes over the next 12 months, Riley says he "does not think delivering value to our members is affected by it". He adds: "Clearly what we will be looking to do is how we can help our members support their clients throughout it and the impact of Covid-19; we already know it will become a central focus over the next 12 months at the very least."


Reimaging engagement

Modernising the ways in which the SPP engages with its members is key for Riley as he takes the baton from McGlone. Riley says: "I really believe in the work he [McGlone] was doing on the modernisation side and it is a wish to continue that and continue to look at how we deliver value to members in a new way."

As part of this, McGlone says he would like to see all members getting a higher level of interaction with the SPPs two figureheads.

"I know how we need to engage with our stakeholders, whether that be policymakers, regulators, members, and so on," he says. "So I'd like the society to now get to a position where all of our members are getting more communication from us, especially more communications relevant to them. To do that, we need to be asking how the SPP best engages with the 15,000 or so individuals who are part of our member firms, so that we get the most to them, and they get the most out of what we have."

He continues: "That challenge for the next two years for Fred and James is to make that come alive because we can occasionally hide our light under a bushel, not deliberately, but not necessarily thinking of sharing all the good work and the information we have more widely.

"I'm hoping that Fred - with more of a business mind and background - can say these are things we absolutely need to do if we're going to really give the most value to our members that we possibly can."

Developing the SPP's place within the sea of pensions and financial trade bodies will also see it take on a stronger lead in analysing and presenting member views to push policy change in line with their desires for the industry.

Emden says: "I think what having the two roles gives us in terms of influence - when we are responding to more formal consultations as an example - is a position in which our view has been drawn from a wide perspective for the benefit of the real engineers of pensions change.

"We are we are in a very good place and we have to give as much as we can give the SPP society, because we will not be going back to large face-to-face meetings in London for a very long time."

Emden adds that the SPP must be technologically fit and "able to deliver all our stuff virtually" for as long as is needed and is prepared to adjust working patterns accordingly to fit the post-pandemic norm.


Breaking barriers

Another crucial stage of the society's planned modernisation is set to be its focus on digitalisation.

Riley says: "We have had this really exciting step of employing Fred into this brand new CEO position, so now it's for Fred to be able to make a real success and change the way we function as a society in 2020. Vital to that is the question of ‘what can we do to up our game up our digital presence?'"

A key aim for the SPP, as agreed by Riley and Emden, is the move away from being London-centric.

Riley says: "This is interesting because at a typical evening meeting, we might have had 70 attendees, but looking at the situation now, we have had nearly 300 attendees at some virtual meetings [since the start of the lockdown]. There are therefore some small positives you can take out of all this and the experience of working remotely."

Emden adds there are "still quite a lot of people in London" but that the SPP will push to have a broader reach, even if that begins with a simple expansion to have a strong presence in the south east.

Speaking on strategising the planned communication and a sound digital upgrade for the society, he says: "In terms of strategy, what I want to say in two years is that - where the executives of the SPP have done an extraordinary job in getting us to where we are today - we have really developed the professional expertise within the executives because communications are really important.

"It's looking at how we develop how the executives deliver for the membership, beyond that of a secretariat, to a professional and focused group of staff, who can who can really take this incredible content that we are building and find ways to share that and get benefit out of it."

Reflecting on his objective of improving communications around the society during his tenure, McGlone says structure is the next step needed to move the society forwards on the communications journey.

"I think we communicate more with our member firms than we did two years ago," he says. "Certainly, as a minimum, every other month, every representative gets an email from us where these members could have gone for some time without hearing from the president previously.

"We've engaged more with our committees, where they're attending council meetings, and I have been attending their meetings, and so we've engaged more with our members."

Overall, McGlone says the society needs to ensure there simply "aren't 1,000 hoops to jump through" for members to receive "the content and level of communication they want".


Events-focused approach

Emden is also clear on his plan to "dial up events significantly" as he settles into the newly-created CEO role -  an objective perhaps set to be somewhat stymied by the ongoing severity of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic turmoil.

"The events give really great value to our membership and that value needs to stay front and centre as a key in what we deliver, how we do the work we do, and the sort of key areas of our activity," he says.

"Our USP is the breadth of perspective that we bring to what we do, and I truly see that in our events. Over the next couple of years we will really focus on using technology, provoked in part by the success that these latest events have had by going entirely online."

Emden is clear that the SPP does not want to "lose the online momentum after lockdown", saying: "There's obviously a question mark over everything but over the coming two years, I want to grow the suite of events in some way. I want them to be even more relevant, stimulating, engaging, and on the real hot topics for the membership.

He continues: "I also want a capacity for members across the country, not just to view but to interact with those events."


Making a mark

Emden says his "key challenge" is to keep well on top of the operational side of things, saying: "We will be able to hopefully collectively make a real impact at a strategic level, whilst ensuring that the operational delivery remains tight and gives us what we need."

There are lessons for both Riley and Emden from McGlone's experience, with the latter advising a client-centric approach to strategy incorporating constant feedback from members that utilises their knowledge base to bring about change as hoped for by the industry.

McGlone says: "The SPP is out there in the industry, talking positively about things we want to change. We've introduced regular polls of our members' thoughts now. We are going out to the membership, seeing what they think, then going out further to the media. With the results of that, we can then share information and we are really trying to do so in a positive way."

When it comes to standing out from the crowd however, McGlone says the number of professional pensions bodies and various organisations is bound to shrink in line with the industry's streamlining.

"People out there will look around now and say, ‘well, actually in an in an industry where the number of defined benefit schemes and even defined contribution schemes is shrinking, how can we continue to support so many bodies supporting trustees?'"

Ahead of his departure from the society, McGlone adds the SPP is "exceedingly well-positioned" to answer this question.

"The reason I, as a pensions expert, go to SPP meetings, and the reason I send my colleagues to SPP meetings, is they learn more; they get more out of it. A pensions actuary, as an example, actually gets more out of being in a room full of administrators and lawyers and covenant advisors and investment managers, and all of the other people who they mix with, than they do from being in a room full of other actuaries," he says.

"The SPP can thrive in that sort of competitive environment and really is in an excellent position to provide value to members and rises to challenges."

Like its competitors however, the SPP will need to wait for the unknown levelling or end of coronavirus before all plans can be put into place.

Emden says: "There's quite clearly the terrible tragedy of lost lives in all of this that will affect the pensions industry. One of the medium-term things that I think is really going to change quite profoundly as a result, however, is this is the way that we as a society must operate and how the wider industry itself must operate.

"Problems with governance and administration throw a lot of things into quite a sort of stark relief right now. I think this is going to mean some kind of quite profound changes, not just financially, when it comes to the future of pensions and its workers."

Past and present: A list of SPP presidents

The Society of Pension Professionals - the organisation known before 2014 as the Society of Pension Consultants - has had presidents from a range of legal, actuarial and consulting backgrounds. The SPP's most recent presidents include:

2000-2002 Jane Samsworth

2002-2004 Donald Duval

2004-2006 Robert Birmingham

2006-2008 Mark Ashworth

2008-2010 Duncan Howorth

2010-2012 Kevin LeGrand

2012-2014 Roger Mattingly

2014-2016 Duncan Buchanan

2016-2018 Hugh Nolan

2018-2020 Paul McGlone

2020-2022 James Riley



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