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MM Profile: Stephen Lowe

Steve Lowe Just Retirement 2012

Just Retirement’s Stephen Lowe is a familiar name to IFAs who advise on retirement. As group external affairs and customer insight director, Lowe is often the public face of a company that has grown rapidly since its creation seven years ago.

Despite its short history, the company is already a dominant player in the enhanced annuity and the equity release markets and its recent foray into the fixed term annuity market has added another strand to the specialist retirement income business.

Lowe started his career in financial services in retail banking on the management training scheme at TSB. The general training lasted two years before he opted to pursue a career in marketing.

He says: “After a couple of years moving around the business, I then concentrated on becoming a marketing specialist. They gave you potential routes, do you become a banker or do you go to head office and do different things.”

In total, Lowe spent eight years at TSB working in the banking business, general insurance, life and pensions and credit cards areas of the business but when it was bought by Lloyds Bank he decided not to relocate to Bristol from Birmingham and chose to join Natwest instead. As marketing director for its mortgage business he says he became a mortgage specialist for a few years before joining a start-up venture backed by AMP.

“About six of us were recruited to effectively build a new bank. We spend a year building it up, getting a license, ran it for two years and then we sold it.”

This was followed by stints at the AA, looking after its credit card and personal loan business, and Prudential initially as corporate pensions marketing manager before being promoted to marketing director.

However, he was soon tempted back into the realm of the start-up when he left to join Living Time.

“I have done blue chips, I have done small start-ups, and now find myself working for a private equity backed structure. So I am very fortunate to have had a varied journey so far.”

He says the experience of working for a start-up business is dramatically different from an established business, as you have to be very hands on and willing and able to do any number of jobs.

“Start-ups are fantastically engaging but incredibly hard work because you live and breathe them 24 hours a day when you are in start up mode.”

Lowe joined Just Retirement in January 2011 and says it has kept some of the feel of being a start-up business.

Part of the reason may be the markets that the business operates in. Just Retirement is the largest player in the enhanced annuities market but despite enhanced annuities having been around for some time, the growth in the market is a recent phenomenon. This is something Lowe expects to continue.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface yet. For the very best, specialist IFAs, about 70 per cent of their business qualifies for an enhanced annuity. Of all those customers that default back to their originating life and pensions company, only 1 per cent of them get the benefit of an enhanced annuity. Is that because all the sick people go to IFAs?”

Lowe says he expects to see some significant changes to the annuity business due to the introduction of gender pricing.

“This is my big prediction – once the gender directive kicks in at the end of this year, we are going to see a massive acceleration towards personalised annuities, just like the protection market.

The days of the blunt instrument like gender and postcode will be a thing of the past and all annuities will start to be underwritten and that it the way we will start to get fair rates.”

Fairness and pensions is something that Lowe feels very strongly about. He has been very active in the drive to promote the open market option and was instrumental in the creation of the Pension Income Choice Association.

“I was there on the first day when we were sat in a room saying we really ought to do something about this. I’m a big campaigner for transparency and I am fortunate to work for a brand that shares that.”

He says whether IFAs choose independent or restricted status makes no real difference to Just Retirement, provided restricted advisers resist the temptation to restrict the choice of providers they deal with.

“We are trying to encourage all of them to keep their panels wide and not to go down any sort of single-tie or very narrowly tied route, as we think that will damage the IFA’s business and give the customer a raw deal.”

The introduction of the ABI’s code of conduct for annuity providers should be a  significant step towards eliminating the problems of the annuity market such as the low numbers of people taking up enhanced annuities.

“I am pleased to say that after three and a half years campaigning with Pica, the reform that will be brought into the market next year, the code of conduct, will put a stop to that kind of ridiculous outcome.”

Equity release is the other significant chunk of Just Retirement’s business at the moment and Lowe says this also feels like a market about to experience rapid growth.

He echoes the tried and tested arguments in favour of equity release but the results of the largest piece of consumer research on the subject have him convinced we are about the see a boost for the business.

“We wanted to show Government policy makers where this market was heading because it is not an area that the ABI and Government have invested a lot of time in developing policies. You wouldn’t believe the difference in attitude between the baby boomers just approaching retirement and someone in their mid-70s.

“A message to all planners is to make sure that equity release just becomes a part of the retirement planning fact find. Those old misconceptions and perceptions are disappearing with the new generation that is coming through.”

He predicts this change in attitudes will translate into noticeable business numbers.

“We saw double digit growth in the market this year. I reckon we will see 50 per cent growth in the market in the next few years, just because of the attitude of the next generation coming through.”

The fixed term annuity market is the latest market for Just Retirement but Lowe says the business is currently mulling over other areas to expand into.

“Watch this space. We are a retirement income specialist so therefore you would expect us to participate in some other areas of the market and we will be looking forward to making those announcements when we have finished our plans.”

Born: Annesley Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire

Lives: Battersea, London

Education: MBA, Henley Business School

Career: 2011- present: RDR lead, group external affairs & customer insight director, Just Retirement; 2007-10: marketing and product director, Living Time; 2004-2007: marketing director, UK & Europe, Prudential; 2003-2004: marketing director, AA consumer finance; 1999-2003: start-up marketing & strategy director, AMP Banking; 1997-99: marketing director, NatWest Mortgage Services; 1995-97: commercial director, TSB Mortgages

Likes: Results focused and positive people, India Pale Ale

Dislikes: Negativity and people who give up without trying

Drives: Old Mercedes E-Class

Book: It is not about the bike by Lance Armstrong

Film: (to be made – Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour De France).

Album: Geatest Hits by Queen

Career ambition: Be the best I can be in the job I’m doing, whatever that may be

Lifetime ambition: Make a difference in whatever I do

If I wasn’t doing this I would be….. looking for another start-up to be part of

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