The AIST Trustee of the Year, CareSuper chair Cate Wood, is determined to keep on fighting to defend the industry fund governance model.

The Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees (AIST) named Wood the Trustee of the Year 2017 at the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds 2017, taking place on the Gold Coast on March 22-24.

In accepting her award, Wood encouraged delegates to rise to the challenge of advocating for the profit-to-member super industry.

“At times, it is depressing because it feels like we are doing it in the face of unending criticism and attempts to undermine what we do,” Wood says. “This year will be no different; we just need to gird our loins and get back into it.”

Speaking to Investment Magazine, Wood says she is worried about the Turnbull Government’s super reform agenda, which includes plans to outlaw the 50:50 equal representation board model typical in the industry fund sector and radically overhaul the process by which employers choose a default fund for their workers.

“I am sick of hearing this ridiculous mantra that unfettered competition will improve outcomes for consumers, when it obviously hasn’t worked in so many other fields,” Wood says. “It displays a wilful disregard for the interests of working people.”

Decades in the industry funds movement

Wood is a well-regarded industry stalwart. She’s a serial participant in industry fund bodies and also chairs advocacy group Women in Super. She was the founding chair of the Mother’s Day Classic.

Wood was an AIST board member for a decade between 2006 and 2016. Prior to that, she was a director of the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds, before that organising body merged with AIST.

The former union organiser has been involved in the industry funds movement since its early days. Wood was appointed to her first trustee role in 1995 as a director of AGEST. She remained a director of AGEST until it merged into AustralianSuper on January 1, 2013. She joined the board of CareSuper in 2000, becoming deputy chair before being appointed chair in 2014. Her four-year term leading the CareSuper board is due to expire in March 2018.

Asked the top priority for her final 12 months as chair, Wood says it is to continue focusing on the fund’s strategy for a long-term sustainable business model.

Merger talk

She confirmed that CareSuper is party to some of the conversations about mergers and successor fund transfers happening across the industry.

“Lots of funds looking around or getting third parties to broker conversations,” she says.

CareSuper is an active participant in some of these conversations, but is not currently engaged in any advanced merger talks, Wood says. She flags the board of the $12 billion industry fund for workers in the caring professions is keen to do deals with other funds looking for a suitable partner to roll into.

“We are setting up the fund to grow and continue to deliver top investment returns and good services to members, to help them achieve their retirement goals,” Wood says. “Organic growth is an important part of that – through continuing to build strong relationships with our members, employers and service providers – but we are also looking at opportunities in terms of mergers.”

When asked whether CareSuper might consider rolling into a larger fund, however, she pours cold water on the idea.

“I’m very comfortable that, at $12 billion in funds under management, we have good scale and offer good services to our members – as evidenced by one of the strongest net promoter scores in the industry,” Wood says. “The fund is also cashflow positive and meeting its growth targets, so there is absolutely no reason why we would have to consider a merger that required giving up control of our brand.”

She says CareSuper is interested in inking fund transfer deals with other funds that are a good fit with its member base. The fund has a predominantly low-earning, female membership – a reflection of the industries it serves.

Calls for action on gender gap

Ahead of the upcoming federal budget on May 9, Wood urges the government to consider proactive measures to help address the gender gap in super savings.

She says measures targeted at helping low-income earners of both genders boost their super are needed.

“Around half of all women in the workforce earn less than $54,000 so by making the system fairer and more adequate for low-income earners, you also address the super gender gap,” Wood says.

Australian women retire with on average 46 per cent less super than their male counterparts.

To read all our coverage from the final day of CMSF 2017, click here.