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John lawson

Standard Life’s head of pension policy is one of the UK’s leading pension commentators and says he aims to make pensions engaging and easy to understand Interview by Lee Jones

John Lawson is a familiar name in the pension and savings business but Standard Life’s head of pension policy and main spokesman on pension issues has had to work his way up from the bottom rung.

He began his pension career after an unsuccessful foray into computer science. He found lines of code “deadly dull” and left his university course, taking a job at Standard Life where he was given the illustrious task of organising cards containing details of customers’ policies.

He says: “A person’s policy was typed on a piece of card and I had to file this according to their number. That was my first experience of the life insurance industry.”

As he was promoted, he developed his knowledge of pension policy and legislation and soon become a technical aide both to Standard Life sales staff and IFAs.

“I had picked up the technicalities of pensions and the legislation that surrounded them and become somewhat of an expert. This was a big learning curve because it was necessary to understand the tax systems and the legislative rules of pensions and life insurance but that gave me a fantastic grounding in the business.”

Lawson wanted to spread his wings and give sales a try and he got the opportunity when Bank of Scotland offered him the chance to set up and run a corporate pension sales team. “With corporate sales, it was very much about knowing your onions.”

He soon built up a team of 25 staff and a profitable corporate pension sales division. “Bank of Scotland was run with an eye for extreme cost management. Every unit was responsible for its own profit and loss, so you ran your sales team as you would a small business. It brought a great financial discipline into your work.”

Once Bank of Scotland started on the acquisition trail, Lawson felt it was time for a change and began looking elsewhere. By chance, his old firm was looking for someone who could act as a commentator and get its message across to the press and to Government. Lawson took on the role and has since become one of the leading pension voices.

He has also been instrumental in helping the industry get points across to politicians through lobby work in the UK and overseas.

“Lobbying was completely new to me and it has been an interesting experience. Like dealing with the press, it takes time to build up your reputation and it is important to have as wide a circle of contacts as possible. When lobbying, it is not just about you. If you are going to win an issue you need to build alliances with people, you can’t do it alone.”

He thinks advisers who have something to say should do so with a united front. “If you can find a common position among a large number of people, that is going to be much more powerful. It is the difference between letting off steam and getting a win for your cause.”

Lawson also thinks it is important not to demonise politicians. He admits some pension rulings have been infuriating but says successful lobbying lies in understanding what Government is trying to achieve.

“Politicians understand the issues but they have their own policies and agendas. Yes, sometimes politicians do not see the knock-on consequences of their actions but why should you expect them to? They do not see the world from your point of view when they make these laws.

“You have to look at things from their point of view. You have to ask yourself if you want to achieve something, why would the Government want to achieve that too? If you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes it can help a lot.”

He admits some legislation is hard to lobby against – the latest changes to the higher-rate pension tax relief, for example – but he has had
some victories.

“Fighting to change rules surrounding protected rights was one of the big wins for us and the changes will be a big win for pension simplification. I just want to make pensions simpler to make it easier for people to understand them.”

He says this should be a central goal for the next Government. “I would like to see policies that encourage savings – which make saving attractive and engage the public. We have some great savings brands out there already in Isa and Sipp and if we can just harness the power of these brands and make it simpler for people to understand – which we can do – it will be quite powerful.”

For now, Lawson is continuing to lobby against the recent changes to higher-rate pension tax relief as well as working towards auto-enrolment but his attempts to improve the pension industry now extend beyond the UK to Europe.

“Europe is becoming increasingly important because most of our legislation starts its journey there. You ignore Europe at your peril.”
He has also begun working to help create a voluntary pension business in China. By sharing the UK distribution lessons he has learnt, Lawson is confident the pension industry will grow out there and says, thanks to the sheer scale of China, it will be a massive business opportunity in the future.

“We are trying to make pensions more popular in China and remove some of the barriers. Standard Life already employs more people in China than we do in this country and the opportunity for pension business there is absolutely staggering.”

Born: Edinburgh
Lives: Dunbar, East Lothian
Education: Fellow of the Society of Financial Advisers, Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute
Career history: Presently: head of pensions policy, Standard Life; previous positions include: head of sales strategy, Bank of Scotland; national sales manager, Bank of Scotland; various, Standard Life
Likes: Football (Hibs, as you ask), speed (the faster the better), marzipan, pickled onions, laughter, music
Dislikes: Coming second
Drives: Alfa GT
Book: Anything by Ian Rankin and some stuff by Iain Banks
Film: Once Upon a Time in the West, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pulp Fiction
Album: All Mod Cons by The Jam; Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not by Arctic Monkeys
Career ambition: Outlast all the other pension commentators
Life ambition: Deliver two healthy, happy, well adjusted daughters into adulthood and have a bit of fun along the way
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Sitting on an Italian hillside, drinking a cold beer and watching the world go by

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