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MM Profile: Nest’s Tim Jones on being an ‘intrapreneur’

Tim Jones profile

Tim Jones’ CV gives the impression of a man who struggled to work out what he wanted to do with his life.

The chief executive of Nest was a member of Don’t Naff About, a moderately successful band whose single “Do the Shopping” was on Radio 1’s playlist in 1980. He subsequently moved to Brighton where he says he was a “kept man” and formed another band called The Deckchairs – which folded in 1982.

Following a short spell at Shell – a job he says he hated – Jones found his first calling at NatWest in 1983. He spent 17 years with the bank, where he was heavily involved in the creation of Switch debit card technology and eventually rose to become chief executive of retail banking.

“And then some Scottish people came along and spoiled my party,” Jones says in a half-joking sort of way.

“I left the day before RBS took over in 2000. The joke is it took me seven years to get over that.

“I was doing a variety of things in 2007 when I got the call about pensions.”

Given his journey from band to oil company to bank to pension provider, it is hardly surprising that Jones needed to create a new word to explain what he does. “I am 57 now and I think I know what I do. I am an ‘intrapreneur’.

“I am the kind of person who gets big change or new stuff done inside quite conservative, institutional environments. So in NatWest I rebuilt the retail bank and that was a radical shift with lots of risk.

“In my current job, I was required to build a new product with very little by way of a script because Government did not know much about product development.

“So they required me to build them a new pension scheme, but they didn’t quite know what they wanted and it was my job to make sure it worked and wasn’t stupid.”

Some have argued that Nest, with its low-risk investment strategy for new joiners and two-tier charging structure, has failed to meet this specification.

Jones, however, is bullish in his defence of a default strategy which places young scheme members in low-risk investments.

“We believe you have to see this issue in the context of the choices people have,” he says. “For our target market, which is people who earn up to £35,000, the reality is that most do not earn that much when they are in their 20s. “A much more common wage at that age is between £15,000 and £21,000.

“So the quantum of upside you can generate by trying to shoot the lights out with the investment strategy at that stage is limited.

“But what you can do is turn them off saving altogether if their fund falls in value in those early years. We have to remember that the best way to make sure you have no pension at retirement is to not put money into one.

“We are very comfortable with the strategy. The more professional people such as advisers engage with it, the more comfortable they are with it too.”

Jones is clearly less comfortable with the restrictions placed on Nest, however.

The Nest supremo talks openly about the damage the £4,400 cap on contributions and the ban on transfers in and out have already done to the scheme’s attempts to win large corporate clients.

But Jones says it is the summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of companies with between 62 and 249 employees will begin automatic enrolment, when Nest’s shackles could cause serious problems.

Jones says that while some of these firms – solicitors and architects, for example – will be very attractive to the private sector, others will not be.

“When you get to the 20,000 plus firms who will enter the system in summer 2014, about a quarter of them are no-brainers – everybody would want to have them.

“But it is not going to be like that right the way through. If you think about a successful plumbing business with 200 or so employees, the average wage is going to be lower and you will have lots of people earning around the minimum wage.

“They are fundamentally less attractive to the private sector. Given that fact, wouldn’t it make sense to give them a clean option to consider on its own, regardless of whether they have a couple of people above the cap or a few DC schemes they want to consolidate?

“Wouldn’t it be sensible to give them an opportunity to look at Nest on exactly the same footing as they would look at any other scheme?”

The Government’s recent call for evidence on Nest’s restrictions, coupled with a growing clamour for their removal from politicians, trade unions and industry commentators, means Jones appears likely to get his wish.

CV

Born: Guildford, Surrey

Lives: Brighton

Education: Christ’s College, Cambridge, 2:1 Honours degree, in the history and philosophy of Science.

Career: 2007-present: chief executive, National Employment Savings Trust; 2002-05: chief executive, Simpay; 2000-02: set up own company Perseus; 1999-2000: chief executive, retail banking, NatWest; 1983-99; various roles in payments and retail banking, NatWest; 1978-83: Lucas CAV; 1976-78: Shell UK Oil

Likes: Music, cars, houses

Dislikes: Negativity

Drives: Nissan 350Z

Book: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Film: Chinatown

Album: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles

Career ambition: To be respected for what I do.

Life ambition: To be happy and to make a contribution

If I wasn’t doing this I would be… Listening to That Lucky Old Sun by Brian Wilson (ex-Beach Boys)

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