One on one with…Leigh Mansell

Leigh Mansell

Heffron SMSF Solutions technical services manager Leigh Mansell regards winning the SPAA Educator Excellence Award as a huge achievement for her organisation as well as herself. She tells Darin Tyson-Chan how many practitioners are still seeking clarity about the legislation and how they use their learnings in a practical way.

Where did your involvement in the SMSF sector originate?

When I left university the first job that I successfully applied for was in a corporate super consulting and admin business. That company was bought out and I moved to another large organisation that was big in the small APRA (Australian Prudential Regulation Authority) funds space. They serviced about half a dozen excluded funds, but nothing major. I eventually moved to a company that looked after small APRA funds and I started to work on SMSFs there, so that’s how it happened. But my serious involvement in the sector came when I joined Heffron SMSF Solutions back in 2001.

At the start though you weren’t involved on the technical side of things, were you?

No, I’ve got an administration background. So I came through the ranks as being an administrator and doing accounting work. From there, when I joined Heffron, it became more of a technical consulting role. But prior to that, it was very much administration focused and performing accounting work, still knowing what the rules were, but not as hands on in applying them.

So how did you find transitioning to a more technical focus?

Fine because it was something I was looking forward to doing and you could obviously see there was a future in it. I like to learn, so it was a good sort of move for me because then I could expand on my skills and use my brain. One of the things I’m always striving to do is keep stretching my brain to find new ways of doing things. It was a challenge, but a great opportunity because at some organisations you can get pigeon-holed as being just in administration or accounting. We don’t have those boxes around us at Heffron.

Providing education is a large part of your role now, but what are some of your other responsibilities?

In addition to education, we run a help desk service. So we get people who ring up with technical queries and I answer a lot of those questions. Sometimes they’re easy, like “what’s my contribution cap?” and you can get off the phone within three seconds. But often we get some pretty complicated technical questions from accountants and advisers, like asking how they can make a particular structure work legally or how they can use borrowing to achieve an outcome. With those queries you have to sit down and work out a way that they can make it happen that fits within the law. Spinning off from that we quite often get asked to prepare comfort letters they can give to an auditor. So everything we do, apart from training, is in an effort to educate the accountants and advisers and even the mums and dads who are our clients. The other thing I do is writing pieces of advice. But training and developing modules is where the bulk of my time goes. Actually, I’m thinking of doing some product development and training development. That means trying to train in different ways and develop new products people can use.

At this year’s SMSF Professionals’ Association of Australia (SPAA) conference, Heffron won the Educator Excellence Award that you accepted. How significant was that achievement?

That was huge. We were actually up against some pretty big players in the industry and, in terms of the headcount of our technical team, we’re a relatively small player in comparison. It was a great pat on the back for what we’re doing and great recognition to know we’re doing it with quality. Giving people what they want, when they want it. The accolade was big for me personally as well because training is a big part of my job.

How do you rate the sources of SMSF education currently available?

There are an awful lot of education providers out there, but I’m not quite sure of the quality of some of them or the usefulness of the material they are delivering. I think a lot of people that are looking for training are probably not sure of what they’re looking for. A lot of them seek education because they need it for their continued professional development requirements. It’s a very, very crowded space. A pleasing aspect is the feedback we get from our attendees that the presentations are practical. That’s very important to us because we don’t just want to tell you what the law says, we want to tell you how to use it.

Is there ever any evidence what you’ve taught is actually being used practically?

Yeah, a lot actually. Practitioners will often come back and say “I came to your training course 18 months ago and I just want to make sure I understood what you were talking about because I’ve got a client in a similar situation”. So yeah, we regularly get people calling us back just wanting to make sure they can remember what we talked about on the day because they want to apply it now.

Is there one topic practitioners are more interested in?

I’d say anything to do with getting a better understanding of certain parts of the law. I think a lot of people don’t know what the law says and perhaps give advice off articles they read or hearsay I guess and that’s obviously dangerous. There are still a lot of people that may not have actually had a look at the law, which is complicated to read obviously, and I think that’s possibly an area of weakness. When we speak to people sometimes it’s a bit of an eye opener when it becomes apparent they don’t know what the law actually says.

Do you find you ever have to counter some of the misinformation about the sector?

Yes we do occasionally. Sometimes we’ll get material sent through to us from someone saying they’d just read it and wasn’t sure if it was right and we’ll have to clarify the situation for them. Often we have to tell them what the article is talking about is slightly different to how they’re reading it. But the nature of articles is they can’t cover everything otherwise it would be an encyclopaedia. It’s not our way to try to blow the writers out of the water, but just frame some context around the particular piece.

Do you think the new licensing laws for accountants will provide a greater demand for educational services?

Yes potentially. I’m actually an accountant and I actually think it’s a good thing. The network of people we deal with includes a lot of accountants, so I think that opens up a raft of opportunities for an increase in the sources of advice available and hopefully it will open up a door for us to help educate them and give them a special type of knowledge, just in terms of self-managed funds. So I think it’s an opportunity for us and them really.

Keeping up to date with the latest sector developments is important for you. How difficult is that?

It’s a big part of my life to be honest. We track legislation changes when they happen and it’s constant. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but it is challenging from time to time. It just depends what’s happening. Often there’s not a lot happening, but then other times there’ll be a bit happening on the edges with things like Centrelink changes or age pension changes. It can definitely be challenging, but I’m probably used to it.

In your 13-year involvement in the sector, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen?

It would be the 2007 changes, which were tax changes rather than super changes, but it changed people’s retirement plans considerably with what they do. Before that we were doing a lot of planning around reasonable benefit limits and that sort of thing and optimising their tax positions. But the over-60 tax rules completely changed what people do, like moving to transition-to-retirement pensions. So the whole structure of things changed on 1 July 2007 from having a lot of people in accumulation phase to a lot of people starting a pension.

What would be the one thing you’d change about SMSFs?

I wouldn’t mind seeing the funds being able to have more than four members. I don’t see the logic of it as it’s just an arbitrary number. While we don’t recommend it, a lot of people want to include their children in their SMSF, but that means five members. Mind you I wouldn’t want to see 20 members allowed in an SMSF though as there would be too many decision-makers. I’d also like to see a different approach to the contributions caps because they’re quite confusing. It’s great that there’s higher caps for the older Australians, but they’re still relatively small caps. I don’t think I’m ever going to have a whopping big fund and I think we’re all very focused on paying off mortgages and the like at this stage of our lives. So at that point in time when we’re ready and able to put money into super, we’re going to be very hamstrung.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the sector in the coming year?

I think the trustee penalty scheme might be a big deal to be honest. We’re hearing a lot of people expressing their concerns about it. So it will be interesting to see how that plays out in practice and whether the regulator’s approach is going to take a bit more of the education direction. It might even have a big impact on advisers and accountants. Some of them are feeling very exposed and are trying to make sure what they’re showing clients can’t come back to hurt them.

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