Joining the board at Sipp and SSAS specialist Talbot and Muir is a “massive highlight” in Claire Trott’s career. The firm’s director, head of pensions technical, admits only a couple of years ago she could not see where she was going career-wise or what difference she could make.
She says: “Joining Talbot and Muir and having the freedom to express my own opinion once again has been a breath of fresh air. It has reinvigorated my interest in the industry and where it is going. That is why it feels right to join the board. It is a big step and I suppose I should be nervous about the responsibility but we are a team and I know I can depend on them all for support should I need it,” she says.
Trott joined Talbot and Muir in 2013 as head of technical support, dealing with queries from advisers among other things. She has worked on the technical side of pensions since entering financial services in 2001 and says the key to being able to communicate information clearly to advisers is getting it straight in her own head first.
“That may seem obvious but opening your mouth and realising part way through that you only have half the answer doesn’t help anyone; neither does jargon or long-winded explanations. Short and sweet is key. It is a very complicated area but I thrive on that and really enjoy working with advisers to make sure they are fully up to speed on all the changes and implications for their clients and their businesses.”
So what do the pension freedoms mean for advisers and their clients? “The pensions freedoms are billed by many as making life easier for retirees and should the changes stay in force for long enough – around 40 years – they should. But it is the historic layers of legislation that causes many of the problems, as well as the issues that occur because legislation is written on the hop, leaving gaps,” she says.
“Advisers who understand these issues are well placed to help their clients. We know not all providers will be offering the freedoms in full and advisers need to be mindful of the need for clients to access these benefits when it is time. This may be on death, not just on retirement.”
For Trott this is a big issue. If clients think they will be able to leave tax-free income to their beneficiaries and this is not the case there is nothing that can be done when they are already dead.
“Now is the time to review all death benefit options and nominations. Providers are getting a lot of grief for not offering all the pension freedoms to clients. What I find odd about this is that it isn’t anything new. How many stakeholder pensions offered capped drawdown or property investment? It was allowed by legislation but no one was up in arms that you could not do it in a price-capped product. Now providers are expected to upgrade their systems and offer full benefits to all clients whatever the structure of the plan.”
You get the impression that, after 14 years at the technical end of pensions, nothing surprises Trott. Her most bizarre query was from an adviser who wanted to know if a client could hold a steam train in a Sipp. “It was a tourist attraction but technically it was still tangible and movable, so would have been taxed to high heaven,” she says.
Trott admits she sometimes struggles when dealing with HM Revenue & Customs. “It is difficult to get a definitive answer when you are constantly referred to wording that is vague at best and misleading at worst. It did improve for a time but you now have to deal with even more reams of legislation that was written in a hurry and doesn’t necessarily fit well with historic legislation still in force.
“I feel for the people at the sharp end of HMRC: they are expected to have all the answers ready at a drop of a hat, even if they weren’t warned or consulted on the changes being brought in,” she says.
As a child Trott wanted to be a vet but realised she was “significantly better with numbers than blood and mess”. She studied maths at university, which paved the way for a career in pensions, starting as free-standing additional voluntary contributions review manager at Mark Lloyd and Co, which became FPS Mark Lloyd. When the pensions review work inevitably started to wind down she trained full time to be an adviser and a pension transfer specialist.
On the same day she decided to leave FPS Mark Lloyd, John Moret offered her a job at Suffolk Life. “ I joined Suffolk Life only months before A-Day. The freedoms brought about at A-Day made Sipps and drawdown significantly more mainstream and today you can argue there is little, if any, diving line between some occupations schemes, a personal pension and a Sipp,” she says.
The move from adviser to provider was tough for Trott. “This was also a change of focus from occupational schemes to Sipps and just before A-Day, so the world of pensions was in a state of massive upheaval already. You wouldn’t think it would be that different but to go from working in a tight group of three advisers you could bounce ideas off to being part of a large organisation with external advisers relying on you can be quite daunting,” she says.
Now in her element at Talbot and Muir, Trott says the firm will continue to prioritise high service standards. “There are many ways we can become more efficient and easier to deal with. We are looking at growing both organically and through well matched acquisitions. We don’t want to sacrifice what has already been achieved with quick additions just to get the numbers up. There is a push from some sides of the industry to try and automate everything but then you lose the personal touch.”
Trott cannot imagine being able to deal online with the complexities she sees at Talbot and Muir. “The clients we deal with have multiple layers of protection and investments in things from orchards to warehouses. They need people to talk to and we have administrators that can answer their queries, not just tick boxes on a computer,” she says.
What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Focus on what you can change. There is no point worrying about things already done or set in stone.
What keeps you awake at night?
My three pedigree cats, especially when there is a full moon. Other than that I tend to sleep well – you can’t fix stuff when you are running on empty.
What has had the most significant impact on financial services in the last year?
The press! I don’t think pensions have ever had quite so much coverage, good or bad.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Write some actual rules. Guidance is all very well but people tend to interpret things in a way that suits them rather than what is best for the client. You spend your life second guessing what they mean and want from you.
Any advice for new advisers?
Being technical is great but being human is better.
2015-present: Director, head of pensions technical, Talbot and Muir
2013-2015: Head of technical support, Talbot and Muir
2008-2013: Pensions technical manager, Suffolk Life
2005-2008: Assistant manager, technical and marketing, Suffolk Life
2000504-2: Pension transfer specialist, FPS Mark Lloyd
2003-2004: Trainee financial adviser, Mark Lloyd and Co
2001-2003: FSAVC review manager, Mark Lloyd and Co