While the Covid-19 pandemic pulled the superannuation industry into a year of volatility and operational upheaval, the turmoil also forced funds to became smarter and more efficient according to operations executives at some of the nation’s largest funds.

Speaking on a panel at the Investment Magazine Investment Operations Conference Digital on Tuesday morning, AustralianSuper finance and operations group executive, Peter Curtis said the improvements achieved by the fund over the last year has been “incredible”.

“We’ve brought on about 138 people so far this financial year,” Curtis revealed. “That ability to recruit while we’re all remote, we’ve just gotten used to it, as we have with a number of things that it would have been difficult to imagine 12 months ago.”

Curtis identifies the rollout of new technology and the transformation to working from home (WFH) as being major achievements that will have a lasting benefit at Australian Super.

“We did bring forward some of our spend,” he said. “But we’re already seeing payback in that investment. We’re getting on top of our data and getting better with digital tools. Being slightly older, you look back and think that we just couldn’t have done this 20 years ago, the world would have just ground to a halt.”

Victorian Funds Management Corporation chief operating officer, Sally Collins, revealed the transition to WFH resulted in a number of “mindset shifts” in areas such as meeting protocols and staff induction.

“We trained out leaders to be very thoughtful about the meeting structure, to be clear about what to have in the meetings and having protocols around them,” Collins explained. “It took a lot of inefficiency out of our process.”

To enhance efficient use of time and reduce fatigue, Collins said managers were encouraged to ask themselves whether each online meeting was even required.

“It helped coaching people more to have proper meetings and make roles and responsibilities clear, and I think that took a lot of the noise out of the business,” she said. “That helped us to work from home but in a professional environment.”

Another silver lining Collins noted was the global operational due diligence gained in focussing on efficient and well-run virtual meetings. “Previously we wouldn’t have been able to because of where people are sitting,” she said, adding that virtual working has “enriched” due diligence protocols.

All about the people

IFM Investors chief operations officer Lounardo David offered a similar view on silver linings during the pandemic from the perspective of a global institutional investment manager. For IFM, being able to onboard new staff effectively in 2020 – including CEO David Neal and chief risk officer Esperanza Cerdan – remotely became a key focus.

“It’s interesting how we improvise when we need to,” David said. “You do need to be a bit more constructive and conscious of what you’re using your time for.”

While there is tremendous value in meeting face to face and building rapport, the world is changing and people involved in the “retirement capital valve” need to improvise, she said. This means developing ways to focus on staff members as individuals wherever they are in the work cycle.

“It wasn’t just managing the work and supporting the business but managing 500 people individually and building a process and a model that works for all. It’s not an easy thing and it’s a work in process, and with that comes some opportunities and challenges.”

Staffing and induction was a key theme among the operations executives. Curtis said the induction process had “really stepped up in quality” over the last year at AustralianSuper and had become more tailored to the individual. Collins noted that VFMC had also onboarded “large amounts” of people over the last year.

“Virtual induction is very taxing on everybody and very one dimensional, so we’re trying to blend that a little [with on-site induction] as we get the flexibility,” Collins said.

The bad guys

Looking to the future, the panel members agreed that investment in data governance and cyber security would be a priority for institutional investment operations teams.

“Cyber has always been big on our list, you can never get too complacent,” David said.

According to Curtis, cyber crooks have already got their sights firmly on the $3 trillion domestic superannuation pool.

“All the money that moves around with the people sitting on this panel – the bad guys have got be sitting somewhere wondering how to get into it,” he said.

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