Profile: Tenet’s Mike O’Brien on the pension complaints time bomb

Pension reform is a big opportunity for advisers but a struggle for the industry, says Tenet Group group brands director  and managing director of TenetConnect and TenetSelect Mike O’Brien. He believes giving people greater choice in what to do with their retirement pot is a good thing. 

But with that comes the responsibility to make good decisions, which people can only do if they have the right information. For O’Brien, this is where the complications begin as people will not necessarily understand the implications of the decisions they make without advice.

“Sometimes the decisions will be easy for people and other times it will be obvious they need to seek regulated advice. The question is whether the customer will seek advice, not whether they should,” he says.

O’Brien points to the lack of detail around the pension reforms as a concern. “The timeframe for implementation in the absence of detailed rules is ambitious. In April, we could have the scenario of a customer being entitled to do this with their money but the industry not being ready for it,” he says.

“The industry is struggling with the Government’s desire to say the individual is grown up enough to make their own decision and if that’s a duff decision its down to them. The FCA’s stance is consumers don’t always know what is best for them and if they do seek advice, it needs to stand up to scrutiny. 

“But the propensity of the Financial Ombudsman Service for retrospective decisions means you should have known with the benefit of hindsight. History tells us people have been held accountable for something in the future, by today’s standards. Pension reform is a major opportunity but a potential time bomb for complaints after the event.”

O’Brien’s solution is to make everything prescriptive, from the guidance guarantee to what customers need to know to make their decisions and what providers have to do.  “There would be no distortion of the truth, people would all have the same choice and nobody could claim ‘they didn’t know’ after the event,” he says.

O’Brien considers the rising cost of regulation, with fewer advisers in the industry to pay FSCS levies, as a problem for advisers. He also believes there should be a long stop to ensure advisers are not plagued by complaints, particularly spurious ones, years into their retirement. But he feels the opportunities generated by pension reform and auto-enrolment will offset those negatives.

“We launched our auto-enrolment service when our competitors were considering whether to get involved,” he says. “It’s been slow to take off, less than 30,000 firms have staged and there is 1.3 million more to go. But SMEs will need to go somewhere for advice – many will go to an IFA and most will go to an accountant initially, so professional connections are important. 

“Some advisers are specialists and others will want to refer clients for that service but won’t want to lose that client overall. They will need to service those clients but they don’t need to do it themselves. It’s a dangerous market to dabble in because it’s more complex than people might understand.”

Like many people, O’Brien’s eventual career is far removed from his childhood ambition. As a boy, O’Brien wanted to be a horse racing commentator like the BBC’s former voice of racing Sir Peter O’Sullevan.

“My dad was in the racing industry,” says O’Brien. “When we moved to Bristol we lived above a betting shop. There were no TVs in betting shops then  –  you relied on the commentary. It was about telling the story to people who couldn’t see the pictures. I thought it would be good to get paid for doing something you love and I used to practice commentating by recording myself on cassette tapes.”

But he went into financial services instead. “My sister worked at NatWest and I applied to the bank but was assigned to the insurance arm in 1979,” he says. “Banks have been criticised for their standards of advice but I can’t fault the training NatWest gave me.”

O’Brien spent 21 years at NatWest, starting off in general insurance, moving to commercial insurance and then taking what he describes as a huge leap into life, pensions and investments. But when his boss joined Old Mutual as head of its US life operations, O’Brien and his partner Maggie were both offered jobs and relocated to the US. 

“I’d never been to the States prior to getting a job there,” says O’Brien. “It was scary that after four or five years I realised it could have turned out to be a disaster but at no time did I ever think of failure. We went there intending to stay three years but came back nine years later.”

This period was both the biggest challenge and biggest highlight of O’Brien’s career; managing a team that successfully turned around a company which had various flaws.

By 2009, O’Brien and his partner wanted to move back to the UK for family reasons but getting a job in a country you are not living in is difficult.  O’Brien decided a six-month contract in the UK would provide the breathing space to find a more permanent role. “That contract was with Tenet as RDR programme director. I’d been there six months when role of MD for Tenet Select and Connect came up so I applied for it and got it,” he says.

A year on from some Tenet members expressing dissatifaction with the group’s compliance checks, O’Brien reports all is quiet on the western front. The firm has introduced various measures to communicate compliance issues more effectively to its members. “There is not the same level of noise now,” he says. “We have a compliance manual that sits on our extranet and gives examples of good practice. We know its working as the number of files passing first time has increased.”

FIVE QUESTIONS

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

Surround yourself with people who have skills different from your own.

What keeps you awake at night?

The pension reforms. Much of the detail is still missing.

What is the most significant impact on financial advice in the past year?

Without question, the pensions reform announcements.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…

Rethink rules around simplified advice. 

Any advice for new advisers?

Soft skills are equally as important as technical competence.

CV

2012-present: Group brands director, Tenet Group

2010-present: Managing director, TenetConnect and TenetSelect

2009: RDR programme director, Tenet Group; consultant, MMS Advisors/Solvins

2006-2009: Chief operating officer, Cielo Capital Management

2006: Chief insurance analyst, Old Mutual Business Services (fixed-term contract)

2005-2006: Chief executive of Mid-America Agency Services; senior vice-president of Heritage Labs and Infolink Services

2001-2005: Chief operating officer, Old Mutual Business Services in the US

1979-2001: Various roles at NatWest Insurance Services and NatWest Life

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  1. Tenet’s definitely a better place to be than it was a year ago. I’m glad I stayed.

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