So far this focus has been successful: the average member now stays with the fund for seven-10 years, up from two-three years not long ago. “Despite the introduction of choice, people are staying with the fund,” Elia says. “People are taking HostPlus with them to their next jobs.” And, the emphasis on improving members’ experience has attracted the attention of the ratings agencies, bringing the fund a string of awards.
But HostPlus has not always had such a clear sense of purpose. In 2003, less than 12 months after Elia had taken over as chief executive, a board room stalemate saw the employer representative directors resign. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority was forced to step in and appoint Ernst & Young as acting trustees.
“That was a very tough time,” Elia recalls. “We had other funds trying to undermine us, people going on the radio and saying things like: ‘if your money is with HostPlus you should be worried’.”
Nevertheless, in that same year, HostPlus managed to deliver a 4.1 per cent return, which was, incidentally, the best performance for an Australian superannuation fund. That result, Elia says, confirmed what he and others close to the fund already knew; that despite the negative publicity, the fundamentals of the fund had always been sound.
The following year, Elia was awarded the Fund Executive of the Year by the Fund Executives Association Limited (FEAL). Michael Baldwin, chief executive at FEAL, says there was no doubt that David’s nomination was the “stand out” for 2004.
“Given the turmoil that the fund had been through in its preceding years, the progress that Host Plus made under David’s stewardship was truly phenomenal,” Baldwin says. “David’s commitment, professionalism, energy and persistence were clearly big factors in his success. He quickly earned the respect of his industry peers and the loyalty of his staff – and that has continued to this day.”
That award gave Elia the chance to study strategic and competitive strategies at the Harvard Business School. “I came back with a whole host of ideas about what we needed to do, largely underpinned by the notion that this fund needed to adopt a competitive position,” he says. “The underlying strategy we have today all started from there.”
There are only two competitive positions any organisation can take, Elia explains. “You can compete on price, by being the lowest cost provider of widgets, or you can compete on differentiation, with a value-based proposition. It was clear to me that HostPlus needed, and in some respects was already positioned, to take advantage of differentiation.