An Industry Giant prepares to hand over the reins: Q&A with First State Super CEO May 2018

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First State Super CEO, Michael Dwyer, has announced he will retire at the end of the year, following 14 years as head of the $90 billion fund. Reflecting on his tenure, Michael shares with Industry Moves some highlights and names those who have inspired him along the way. With hindsight, he also considers what he might have done differently; offers some advice to his successor; and shares his thoughts on effective leadership.

After 14 years as the CEO of First State Super, why is now the best time to step down?

Following the purchase of StatePlus in 2016, my contract was extended so that I could oversee the successful integration of our financial advice businesses. That business is now under the very capable leadership of CEO Graeme Arnott. I have a very strong and talented executive team in place at First State Super and, with my current contract due to conclude later this year, this feels like the right time for me to hand over the reins. I’m also looking forward to spending more time with my wife Janelle and our growing number of grandkids.

What do you feel have been the milestones/highlights for the fund during your tenure?

My team and I have achieved some major milestones together over the past 14 years including becoming a public offer fund in 2006, merging with Victorian-based Health Super in 2011 and acquiring financial planning company StatePlus in 2016.

In 2012, you received the Fund Executive of the Year award in recognition of your outstanding leadership. What qualities do you feel have held you in good stead?

Listening to a range of opinions and treating people with respect is fundamental to good leadership. Leadership isn’t about always being right or being the smartest person in the room. It’s about being self-aware and recognising your own strengths and weaknesses and seeking feedback from a wide variety of people. Being smart in our industry is a given but not a differentiating quality. Wisdom, good judgement and a strong moral compass are the qualities that I look for in my leadership team.

"Leadership isn’t about always being right or being the smartest person in the room. It’s about being self-aware and recognising your own strengths and weaknesses and seeking feedback from a wide variety of people."

The importance of culture within an organisation has been highlighted to great effect lately. Where do you feel the responsibility for instilling a good culture lies?

A healthy culture is critical to the success of any organisation and responsibility for instilling and leading this sits with everyone. However, it must start from the top - from the Chair, the Board and the CEO. The example of the leadership team will then amplify what that culture is. I’m a strong believer in 'the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’.

What advice would you offer to your successor?

My successor will join an organisation with a strong Members First culture. There are opportunities and challenges ahead, but the organisation has already established itself as a leading player in our industry. We have a highly effective board, and a skilled, experienced and dedicated team. Harnessing the strength of that team and keeping our members at the heart of business decisions will be the key to ongoing success.

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

The two Chairs during my tenure, Dr Tom Parry & Neil Cochrane, and the various Directors who have worked with me and my Executive Team. They have been inspiring and motivating and I have learned something from all of them. My family have also been incredibly supportive and patient; my wife Janelle in particular! She has been a real inspiration to me throughout my career and I could not have had the success I have had without her support and wise counsel.

If you were starting the role tomorrow, with hindsight as a guide, what advice would you give yourself?

While we always knew that the superannuation sector was going to be increasingly important, I don’t think we could have predicted how quickly the sector was going to grow, and the impact it was going to have on the lives of our members, the economy, the environment and the community. While we have grown steadily I think we could have embraced the advantages that technology offered earlier than we did. It is certainly something that we are doing now.

"A healthy culture is critical to the success of any organisation and responsibility for instilling and leading this sits with everyone. "

Can you share a highlight from your involvement with the United Nations Refugee agency?

I joined the board of UN Refugee Agency, Australia for UNHCR in 2001 and since then we have successfully raised over $250 million in support of refugees and others who have been displaced as a result of conflict and natural disaster. This wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of everyday Australians, including many good people in the financial services sector, who have donated privately and supported initiatives including our annual World Refugee Day Breakfast.

What legacy do you hope to leave behind at First State Super?

When I was appointed CEO in 2004, First State Super managed $9bn in superannuation savings on behalf of 450,000 members. Today First State Super is one of the largest and most prominent superannuation funds in Australia with over $90bn in funds, managed on behalf of more than 800,000 members and clients.

Most of our members work in vocational roles that care for our communities. They are nurses, midwives, teachers, police, firefighters, paramedics and others who dedicate their careers to helping others. These people are at the heart of every business decision we make and I feel proud to have helped to establish a workplace culture at First State Super that very genuinely puts Members First.

While we’ve come a long way, this is just the beginning. The future is exciting for First State Super and I’ll leave behind a strong foundation to support decades of growth for the years ahead.

What’s next on the cards for you?

I care a lot about this sector, and the community it serves. I will also continue my involvement with UNHCR, which I am passionate about. However, I am here until the end of the year and I’ve still got a lot of work to do leading First State Super.

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