'End of an era': Q&A with departing REI Super CEO Mal Smith August 2019

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After 15 years in the top job, Mal Smith is in the thick of a handover with newly-appointed REI Super CEO Jarrod Coysh before departing the fund later this month. We ask Mal about the highlights of his tenure, his colleagues, and what he plans to do next. He also shares his thoughts on the merger activity within the super sector and offers some words of wisdom to both his successor and his younger self.

Can you name some of the milestones/highlights for the fund during your 15 year tenure?

There have been numerous memorable events for the fund, both large and small and a few that come to mind are:

• the introduction of choice of fund in 2005 which sharpened competition for all industry players, and began the journey of product and service innovation for all industry participants.
• obviously the GFC, which was extremely scary for the few weeks when markets seized up.
• engaging deeply and continuously with our members during that time to ensure they made decisions in their best long term interests.
• the Fund converting to public offer status in 2015.
• product and service improvements over the period.
• our 40th anniversary as a fund and celebrating that milestone with some of our real estate industry partners.
• being an early adopter of a governance model with one third independent directors.
• numerous employer and member interactions at fund and real estate events when, I’ve had great direct feedback from our members and employers.

Do any colleagues that you’ve worked with over the years get a special mention?

Well our current chair, Claire Higgins has been a fantastic collaborator to work with over the last 5 years. I’ve also been fortunate to have some colleagues in the Trustee Office, as well as board members who have done creative, incisive work. I’ve also worked with some wonderful and creative advisors. For (their) ego reasons, I will not name them!

What are your feelings on the current merger activity to create larger super funds?

The key determinant is about delivery of outcomes to members – that’s solely why we exist. Scale and efficiency can be achieved in a variety of ways, and it’s up to each fund to keep that as their central focus. I believe it’s healthy for competition to have a range of players of different sizes and strategies, although arguably the consumer still has more choice than required, and further consolidation could occur without harming competition. I suspect the industry will end up looking a bit like the wine industry with several mega players and a smaller number of specialist boutique funds who closely serve their members’ needs.

Scale and efficiency can be achieved in a variety of ways, and it’s up to each fund to keep that as their central focus."

Do you have any advice for your successor?

Enjoy the job and the great people you work with!

The role has wonderful interest and variety inherent in the position. Collaborate with your industry peers as much as you can. The industry fund movement has many common aims, and our collective responses to government policy, legislation, etc. I’ve always found a powerful tool.

What comes next for you in your career?

After almost four decades in financial services I’m taking a sabbatical for a couple of months.

As I’ve worked across operations, consulting, strategy, governance, and leadership I’ve acquired a fairly detailed body of knowledge. I hope to secure a future role that contains variety and challenge – whether at board level, or interesting and varied project / executive work with a super fund. I’m also exploring board positions outside of financial services where my skillset is appropriate to the needs of the business.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life/career?

Career wise - Paul Keating – he invented the system! Life wise might be a tougher philosophical question I expect.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I was a country kid who grew up in central Victoria in Bendigo, so my background was the outdoors, bush, open spaces. It was pretty much a country town in those days, although it has become slightly more progressive since those times.

With the benefit of hindsight, what advice would you give to your 21-year-old self.

Professionally - learn to touch type, and you will get more done! Personally - quit the band and focus on uni (which was the right decision). And obviously be nice to your friends and family.

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