First State Super CIO Damian Graham (Photo: Matthew Fatches)
First State Super CIO Damian Graham (Photo: Matthew Fatches)

In a post-Hayne royal commission world, the country’s superannuation funds are furiously striving to stand out and remain competitive with their peers. At the Conexus Financial Superannuation Awards, the winners for Member Services Fund of the Year, Best Insurance Offering and Best Advice Offering did so by aiming to help members get ahead in the accumulation stage and look forward to a comfortable retirement.

“I do think right now, like lots of areas of the industry, people are calling out the challenges, and I agree with that, but we don’t want to be the average provider, we want to be the best provider,” First State Super CIO Damian Graham said at the awards ceremony, held at the Ivy in Sydney on Thursday night.

First State Super, which has about $70 billion in accumulation assets and $25 billion in retirement assets, won the Best Advice Offering award for 2019, beating out AustralianSuper, QSuper, UniSuper and VicSuper.

Graham said the fund, which purchased financial planning company StatePlus in 2016, was placing its focus squarely on the retirement phase.

“It’s an area that we are absolutely focused on,” he said. “When we think about our strategic points and differentiators, it is largely about how we can deliver advice to more members to create a great retirement journey for them and [help them] have a successful time in retirement.”

For First State, financial advice can include education and can be delivered in many forms, including digital, phone-based or face-to-face advice, Graham added.

By some estimates, Boomers make up about 25 per cent of Australia’s population but own more than 50 per cent of the country’s private wealth.

The architect of the Future of Financial Advice package, Bernie Ripoll, handed out the award, and said the judging committee deemed First State Super to be offering “access to the best advice and financial planning services, both general and personal, to enable its members to maximise their retirement benefits by optimising contributions and investment strategies”.

Another fund striving to give more to members in a competitive environment is VicSuper, which beat out QSuper, Rest, Sunsuper and UniSuper to clinch the award for Member Services Fund of the Year.

Joshua Parisotto, executive manager of distribution at VicSuper, said the fund’s staff were dedicated to making the member experience “a good one and that was a key reason the fund had won the award three years in a row”.

“What we are finding now is a lot more members are educated and more self-aware so we spend a lot more time…making their decision process easier and putting them through to the right team,” Parisotto said after winning the award.

The fund is working to improve its advice offering, enabling members to “choose their own journey” and trying to cut wait times for its call centre.

Parisotto said such enhancements had lifted the fund’s net promoter scores over the last few years.

“It has been going up year on year, so it’s a good indication of where we are as a fund in terms of future projection,” he said.

Keeping members protected into the future is also a key consideration for AustralianSuper, the winner of Best Insurance offering for 2019, which partners with TAL.

The CIO of AustralianSuper, Mark Delaney, said for those with low-balances, insurance through super was critical.

“What people don’t remember is that prior to compulsory super, most people didn’t have insurance or the option of buying insurance, and buying it as a retail customer was too expensive, so superannuation has transformed insurance for the bulk of Australians,” he said after the win.

In 2017, AustralianSuper became the first fund in the country to halt automatic insurance for under 25s, something Delaney said came from “member feedback” about what was needed.

These comments come as group insurance remains under fire for causing leakage from member accounts through unwanted cover. The final reports from both the Productivity Commission and the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry shone a light on this issue.

In presenting the award, the chief executive of Fund Executives Association Ltd, Joanna Davison, told the packed Ivy ballroom that “given the current environment, and its external focus on affordable insurance design that delivers to members in its time of greatest need, it has never been more important”.

About the awards

Funds are invited to nominate themselves for awards across 11 categories. The committee assesses a broad range of quantitative factors – including fees, investments and member services – and overlays this with a number of qualitative considerations.

The Conexus Financial Superannuation Awards are the only truly independent awards within the sector. There is no entry fee and the winners are decided by a volunteer judging committee that has broad representation from all areas of the industry, including the retail and industry fund sectors, and consumer representation.

Last year, the committee added a 10 per cent weighting to governance in its assessment of the funds’ offerings. This included an examination of gender balance at the board and executive level, director engagement and director tenure.

Conexus Financial head of institutional content, Amanda White, chairs this year’s committee, which agreed that good governance was an important ingredient for fund success.

The other committee members are:

  • California State Teachers’ Retirement System CIO Chris Ailman
  • FEAL chief executive Joanna Davison
  • CHOICE chief executive Alan Kirkland
  • Financial Services Council chief executive Sally Loane
  • Rice Warner chief executive Michael Rice
  • Former parliamentary secretary for financial services Bernie Ripoll

The 2019 Fund of the Year award goes to the nominee the committee believes has the best broad proposition and the highest level of innovation and overall excellence.

The 2019 Conexus Financial Superannuation Awards are sponsored by event partner AIA Australia.

Alice Uribe is the editor of Investment Magazine’s print and digital platforms. Uribe has been working as a journalist, editor and digital producer for more than 10 years.