Businesses have always got the best from Tobin Murphy-Coles by allowing him to spread his wings rather than clipping them. Giving the commercial director of Aon Benefit Soutions the scope to develop and run with new ideas has been an advantage for the employee benefits market over the years.
In previous roles, the one-time wannabe pilot and keen surfer has been a driving force for Jelf Group’s entry into the UK flexible benefits market, making flexible benefits accessible to medium-sized firm when previously it was viable only for larger companies. At Lorica Consulting he developed the Bigblue online benefits platform, which now belongs to his current employer, Aon.
“I have a clear vision of what I want technology to do. Software needs to be easy to use and adaptable to different devices. Most creative people take bits from what has gone before, like in music, but it is the same in technology. You take the best bits from everything else; take a lot of bits of pre-existing software to create something new,” he says. “At Lorica my job was to find all the individual bits of kit and software developments and weave it into a product that felt joined up.”
The idea for Bigblue, which enables employees to access and interact with their employee benefits, workplace savings and personal finances, emerged at a time when the RDR was happening, auto-enrolment was on the horizon and companies with pension schemes were under pressure, so the number of employers paying for financial advice in the workplace looked likely to fall once commission was replaced by fees. Developing software to manage employees’ finances and help with financial decisions in the workplace seemed obvious to Murphy-Coles, but not to everyone.
“The biggest risk that anyone took is backing our view that this was the direction of the market. The market was saying pension providers would design better technology. But we said we don’t think it can and that we need to build it ourselves. That risk paid off but it was a pioneering thing to do.”
Murphy-Coles is concerned that, now, thousands of people who would have benefited from advice in the workplace paid for by commission are now left to “self-educate” through some of the most complex financial decisions of their lives. “Although systems like Bigblue exist, their role will always be educational and triggering, never fully advisory,” he says.
Murphy-Coles says he has an inbuilt radar looking for what he thinks is going to be the next big thing, what the trends are and where the market is moving. “I’m happiest in an innovative and creative space. I’m at my best when taking businesses through transformational change,” he says.
For Murphy-Coles, companies that are prepared to change, allow creative people to flourish and do something different are the ones that thrive. The companies listed on his CV bear testimony to that.
In the late 1990s he started work as business development manager at Cigna Healthcare. As a US brand Cigna was a small player in the UK healthcare market that was dominated by the likes of Bupa and PPP Healthcare.
Murphy-Coles says it had to distill its global experience into the UK, which was a brave thing to do. “Cigna was a small player but established the brand in the UK through quality and exceptional care to the end consumer – the level of care unsurpassed by any other,” he says.
In 2003, Murphy-Coles became sales director, healthcare, at Jelf Group and rapidly grew that side of the business. “Understanding the value of benefits packages became the heartbeat of the conversations I was involved in,” he says.
Employers who wanted to recruit and retain the best people did not understand why they should spend more money on benefits packages if people who were already getting benefits worth a certain amount were still leaving. But Murphy-Coles recalls turning these conversations on their heads, pointing out that the cost of providing additional benefits to encourage staff to stay was better for employers than having to recruit and train new staff.
Jelf’s entry and growth in the flexible benefits market is “a remarkable story” according to Murphy-Coles. “At the time I joined it had 150 employees. It was just a small business but had the ambition to move from being just another financial services provider to being a national all service broker. It had an astute management team and board. I’ll always admire Chris Jelf [Jelf founder and deputy chairman] for having the foresight to grasp the thinking and having the management team to bring things to life.”
Jelf wanted to expand in the HR market and it made sense to provide flexible benefits, with one firm equipped to run all the different benefits. With this came the need for benefits packages to be transparent, with everything pulled together in one place and delivered in an online format.
“We needed to bring a flexible benefits proposition to market. That was a transformational moment. Flexible benefits were the remit of large firms but it was interesting that medium-sized companies were starting to see the value of it. Flexible benefits tended to be very expensive but software enabled us to deploy low costs and adapt it for medium sized businesses,” says Murphy-Coles.
In his current role, and looking ahead to the future, Murphy-Coles is focusing on the the Bigblue family of products, which includes Bigblue, Littleblue (a version of Bigblue for small to medium sized firms) and BigBlue Touch. He describes the latter as “groundbreaking” as it has Aon’s pension scheme embedded in it to provide a seamless solution for employers and employees. “We will continue looking at the Bigblue family and making it grow. We are talking about looking after people from auto-enrolment right through retirement with derivatives of same piece of technology,” he says.
Outside of work, Murphy-Coles carries his pioneering spirit into the great outdoors. As well as taking flying lessons – the legacy of a childhood obsession with aeroplanes and wanting to be a pilot – he spends his free time traveling the world with his surfboard. “I have been surfing since I was four years old,” he says. “It was part of my childhood. My grandfather was a carpenter and the story is that he first saw some American GIs surfing in North Africa. He borrowed some balsa wood from the factory where he worked to make a surfboard at home. I was drawn to that and it started from there. It’s a complete antidote to the stresses and strains of business.”
What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Start with setting out your dreams, aspirations and wish list of all the things you want to do, go and be in life; then work all of your financial planning from there.
What keeps you awake at night?
Thinking about the directions we could take Bigblue and deciding which we should do first.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
I think the final removal of adviser commissions has had the biggest impact. We are not seeing companies or scheme members who received financial advice paid for by commission in the past having the appetite to pay for the same advice by fee.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Ensure employer governance around group personal pensions became an obligation rather then best practice. Then call all the senior policy decision makers into a room and remind them that the compliance burden should not dilute the ability of well-run businesses like mine to spend the majority of its time delivering outstanding outcomes for their members.
Any advice for new advisers?
Completely embrace technology: it’s the future of financial planning and transaction.
2014-present: Commercial director, Aon Benefit Solutions
2011-2014: Commercial director, Lorica Consulting
2009-2011: Director, flexible benefits & marketing, Lorica Consulting
2003-2009: Sales director, healthcare then head of flexible benefits, Jelf Group
2002 – 2003: Sales manager, healthcare, Aon Consulting
1999 – 2002: Business development manager, Cigna Healthcare
1996-1999: National development manager, Mars Corporation