New SMSF Association chief executive John Maroney has renewed his involvement in the superannuation industry, having previously played a part at its inception. He shares with Darin Tyson-Chan his thoughts on how the retirement savings landscape has evolved and the areas he will focus on in the immediate term.
What attracted you to the chief executive’s role at the SMSF Association?
I have always been involved and passionate about the Australian retirement system, where I spent most of my career before going to Switzerland, and it was fascinating when I was here and more fascinating now that I’ve returned. I think there is still a lot to be done – it’s still growing and maturing and it’s almost like watching a child grow up. I was part of it when there were major changes happening in the ‘80s and now 30 years later we’ve got a lot of money and a lot of people in the system and it’s starting to get to that very interesting stage of what it’s all about, that is, helping Australians retire in a secure and dignified way. It’s an area of great interest and passion to me.
Has the superannuation system developed the way you expected over the past 20-odd years?
Some things have, other things have evolved differently. I expected overall that everyone would be part of the system because it is compulsory and I expected the asset size would grow very substantially as it has. What has been unexpected to me is just how much growth the SMSF sector has experienced. If you’d asked me 10 years ago just before I left the country, what will be the fastest-growing and biggest part of the super system when you come back, I wouldn’t have picked SMSFs. It’s fascinating and one of the things that attracted me to the role as to understanding why that happened and how that happened. There are always improvements to be made across the board, but when you compare it to the rest of the world we’re doing a great job overall.
Do you still consider the SMSF sector to be exciting?
I think it’s exciting and it certainly looked and felt exciting down in Melbourne at the national conference. There was a real buzz there and having the Prime Minister open the conference was significant. There’s still a lot of innovation happening in the space, a lot of research, and so many people and organisations still wanting to be part of it. I think that’s fantastic because the superannuation cake is a big cake and it’s going to keep getting bigger, and what’s happening with technology and the educating of members and advisers and increasing the integrity of professionals gives the sector a great buzz and I think it’s terrific.
What do you think about the complexity that is about to be introduced to the system?
Complexity is an issue. I think it will be a challenge again, because it has been in the past, to deal with a lot more record-keeping to see where people’s balances are to determine their ability to make further non-concessional contributions. But technology is much better placed now compared to 10 or 15 years ago to deal with that. The ATO has good systems for collecting and integrating that information and the plan is to move to more real-time reporting over the next couple of years and again that will be challenging for people to get there, but once they’ve made the steps, I think it will be helpful. You always need to look at the costs and benefits of adding more complexity, but if the complexity can be handled by the system and people then understand how to use it, a positive outcome will result.
I think it’s exciting and it certainly looked and felt exciting down in Melbourne at the national conference. There was a real buzz there and having the Prime Minister open the conference was significant.
Does the additional complexity place increased pressure on the SMSF Association to add more value for its members?
I think it does. We need to continually provide good benefits to all of our members so they’re always looking for something extra, which is natural. If we kept giving them the same things each year, they’d say what’s the benefit in hearing the same information the same way. So we’re constantly trying new ways of getting information out to people.
Have you identified any issues that need addressing or any new activities that are needed from the SMSF Association in the immediate term?
There are a few. One is to increase the activity for our trustee members, so we’re going to hold our first couple of seminars specifically for this group in Melbourne and Sydney later this year. We think that’ll be great to get the initial groups of those members together in a room and have a day with them sharing information, education and getting some feedback from them as to what they find most valuable. Another priority is building strategic partnerships. We announced one with the ATO back in February at the national conference and I’ve had a number of sessions with their senior people and we’ve got our third secondee from the ATO working with us at the moment. We’ve also got some pretty exciting research plans over the next few years under that auspices. We are exploring a number of other partnerships as well, not a large number, but we’d hope to pull together a number of those strategic relationships in areas such as investments, technology, women in super, research, ageing and retirement.
You were previously the Institute of Actuaries chief executive. Do you see any similarities between that position and your new role?
I do and that’s very much around the concept of professionalism. Being an actuary is one of the oldest professions in Australia and I think it’s rightfully got a very strong reputation for high degrees of professionalism, trust and expertise and I’d certainly like to have as many of those values evident in all professions, but especially the ones I’m working in that are most relevant to me. What the actuaries have done over 100 years is something we at the SMSF Association would aspire to because it should increase the level of trust, expertise and professionalism. We have a number of actuaries involved in the organisation, it’s not a large part of our membership, but I think the value set is very much a common commodity for all professions to increase their integrity, education and training, as well as a sense of acting in the public’s interest.
Will this previous role assist you in dealing with Canberra as well?
I think so. A lot of the names and faces have changed since I was down there last, but there are still quite a few of the contacts I made in the first 20 or 30 years of my career involved one way or another. The process though still remains similar.
How has the handover process been?
Good, it’s gone very smoothly. Andrea Slattery and the team were very well prepared to move me into the new office, a new home and a new life. That’s all still partly in transition. Andrea as you know is staying on the board, but I took over the reins as chief executive from day one at the beginning of May and we’ve done quite a lot together during May in terms of going to Canberra together and the like. It’s been a very smooth handover and I compliment Andrea, the board and the team for having done the preparation that made it work that way.
Did Andrea Slattery offer any parting words of wisdom regarding the role?
I’ve had lots of words of wisdom, but I wouldn’t call any of them parting because she hasn’t left the association. The main message I got from her was what a wonderful area it was for her to work in and she’s looking forward to keeping it going. Also that she was delighted to have me on board and she and the rest of the board and all the team are ready, willing and able to give me continuing words of advice along the way.
What do you see as your biggest challenge as chief executive?
I think there has been a great lot of work done in the past 10 years and more and I would like to continue that evolution. I think there is a lot of work that can be done to service our members and look for the right strategic direction with the board. So I think there’s a lot still to be done to make our great superannuation system better and this sector better, but it’s a step-by-step process. We now have a few thousand members and we’d like to grow that number, raise the professionalism, and attract more and more trustee members and continue to help those Australians who own an SMSF and make sure their experience with the system and us is as good as it can be.
Is there anything you’ve identified that you’d really like to achieve in this role?
I really do think we’ve got another 10 years plus of helping the system mature and I would hope in 10 years’ time I can look back and say over that period the system improved and say I helped contribute to that. In particular, I’m hoping our SMSF sector continued to thrive and grow in that time. I’m talking primarily in quality and efficiency because I think they’re important, and I’d like to look back and feel I’ve spent most of my career close to the Australian super system and I’ve helped make a difference.