John Coombe, one of the most prominent gatekeepers in industry superannuation, has slammed professional super fund trustees for being more responsive to their paycheques than the interests of the members they were appointed to serve. Speaking in panel session at the 2010 Conference of Major Super Funds (CMSF) last month, the JANA Investment Advisors executive director declared: “I can’t stand professional trustees, they know nothing about the memberships of all the funds they sit on, they couldn’t give a stuff unless you’re writing out a cheque for them.”

He was responding to a question from the moderator of the plenary session, Michael Dwyer, chief executive of First State Super, who had asked what the perfect client looked like. Coombe’s answer drew spontaneous applause and “hear hears” throughout the hall. He said his perfect client was a trustee board which understood what it wanted, and what its members wanted. Speaking to Investment Magazine, Coombe said he was uncertain if independent trustees – those not nominated to boards by a sponsoring organisation but invited to join for their professional skills – were fully attuned with the broad experience of members.

“Essentially, I just want trustees who are passionate about underlying members and aren’t just there because it’s their gig,” he said. Chris Cuffe, former boss of Colonial First State and now an independent trustee of UniSuper, said this line of thought could be valid for some funds and “if people did it just for the money and didn’t have a connection there would be an issue”. “I don’t do it for the money, and most people that know me will know that. I do it out of passion for the industry, and I’ve got a lot of knowledge from being in it.

And it’s a way of staying in the industry,” Cuffe said. He said UniSuper’s three independent directors were connected to members’ concerns through their interactions with the other eight member- and employerappointed trustees, and member communications such as call centre statistics, matters before the superannuation complaints tribunal and member satisfaction surveys. Angela Emslie, chair of HESTA and employer director at Vision Super and Care Super, and also a director of AIST, said the association had no formal view on the suitability of professional trustees in industry super funds. “It’s really up to the sponsoring organisation to determine who they think are the most appropriate people,” Emslie said.

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