Steve Bee is stood perfectly still for his profile picture, surrounded by huge canvasses taken from his Pensions Guru cartoon strips. It is one of the few moments during our two-hour conversation that Paradigm’s excitable director is not on the move.
“We are going to publish a book of the cartoons,” he says as I greet him. “I am the hero and I give an overview of the pension landscape. We wanted to keep it broad so it does not immediately go out of date.”
Bee says if he had not been forced to face the financial reality of paying off a mortgage, he would have pursued a career as a cartoonist.
“I had a stab at being a professional cartoonist but earning money from it is really hard. I was never good enough to be a professional cartoonist. I always enjoyed drawing but then I needed a mortgage so I started doing this.
“I ended up at the Pru and, through circumstance, I became head of pensions. It is not my fault, it just happened to me.”
Bee’s enthusiasm for pensions is peaking now because an idea he scribbled down seven years ago is about to go live for the first time.
He says Jargon Free Benefits, a product which he quit his most recent employer Royal London to develop, will revolutionise IFA firms’ business models over the next four years.
“For small and medium-sized firms, automatic enrolment is a human resources nightmare. What we have done is build a system which can plug into any payroll system and any pension schemes they have, of any type or from any provider. We are completely transforming the IFA business model so, they are effectively becoming mini employee benefit consultants.”
Bee has lofty ambitions for the Jargon Free brand and has already secured the rights to Jargon Free Money and Jargon Free Finance.
“My aim is that, over the next four years, one million employees in the UK will be members of the Jargon Free Benefits system. We have already got the distribution capability with the firms who have already signed up. I fully expect Jargon Free Benefits to become a consumer brand in the next four years.”
Having just delivered his new product to the marketplace, Bee is heavily critical of what he sees as a lack of innovation within the pension industry ahead of auto-enrolment.
“This is a once-in-50-years’ change to pension legislation. It fundamentally alters the way the state provides pensions. I am surprised there are not more innovative products in the market. We hope we can throw down a gauntlet to pension providers because this is how we think pensions should be. There is a lack of creativity in pensions. We want to bust the old model.”
When Bee refers to the old model, he is not just referring to the difference between his new product and those offered by traditional insurers but to the culture of pensions and the way they are presented to people.
I put to him the findings of a recent study from the Association of Consulting Actuaries, which suggests employers will reduce their overall spending on pensions as a result of auto-enrolment.
“A lot of people, including, of course, the ACA, have been saying that wide occupational pension coverage means the quality of those pensions will fall. I would argue that we can achieve wider coverage while also increasing the depth of coverage.
“If we all sit around moaning about pensions and follow the tabloids’ lead on pensions and keep talking pensions down, then employers will cut their pension spend. But if we start building pensions up, making it sexier, making it a bit of fun, then maybe we will get more people saving.”
Bee even goes as far as to suggest that, far from being destined for a bleak retirement, we are about to enter “a golden era” of pension provision.
“I disagree with people who say we have come from a golden era of pensions. Twenty years ago, people might have had guaranteed pensions but there was no PPF. Today, people have that protection.
“I think we have an opportunity to make this the golden era because, as a result of the Government’s reforms, people might just start to appreciate the value of their pension and engage in saving for their retirement.”
Born: Apparently, but I have no memory of it
Lives: Gidea Park, Essex
Education: I was comprehensively educated by 1960s’ Labour Party edict
Career: Head of pensions, Prudential. head of pensions strategy, Royal London Group.
2010-present: founder, Paradigm Pensions; 1998-2010: head of pensions strategy, Royal London Group; 1972-1997: Prudential, latterly as head of pensions
Likes: Bob Dylan records, Marvel comics, anything built by Apple
Dislikes: Windows PCs, Blackberries.
Drives: Anything secondhand and cheap (I have an aversion from investing in depreciating assets)
Book: The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
Film: Renaldo and Clara
Album: Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie
Career ambition: For JargonFreeBenefits to be bigger than Nest
Life ambition: To become a better cartoonist
If I wasn’t doing this I would be….Doing something else