Cover Story: Melinda Howes
Closing the gap
After a period of hiatus, Melinda Howes returned to BT Financial Group as general manager of superannuation having realised her passion for super and the difference she can make in members' lives. Karren Vergara writes.

In the early 2000s, Melinda Howes left her executive role at BT Financial Group to try her hand at different things.

The intervening 11 years saw Howes return to her actuarial roots by becoming a consultant; leading the Actuaries Institute as chief executive and sitting on the board of insurance and reinsurance firms.

Out of all these changes, the good super funds will come to the surface.
Nearly five years ago, a headhunter recruiting for a role leading a super business came knocking, asking Howes if she was interested.

"I told them the only super business I would like to work for is BT - and it turns out it was BT."

Howes knew the organisation well and decided to seize the opportunity and leave her director of product strategy and services role at AMP.

In the 25 years since she joined BTFG, she says the firm has been through different iterations, structures and owners.

"This current one is picking up my business unit and other related one and bringing them into the business division. It is a very logical strategic move, I think."

Parent company Westpac announced in March it is realigning its wealth strategy. BTFG, which houses funds management operations, super, insurance, private wealth, platforms, margin lending and equities broking ceased as a standalone division.

Insurance moved into the business and consumer division; while private wealth, platforms and investments and super shuffled into an expanded business arm.

The changes took place from April 1 and the group is now operating under the new business model, she says.

"It's live and it was a seamless transition; obviously there are few details we need to work out but the transition has been very smooth."

What won't change is the BTFG brand. It will continue to help people make smart moves about their future and provide strategies that make the most of their super and life after work, Howes adds.

Defining the gaps

Helping Australians engage with their super and not fear retirement have been driving forces in Howes' career.

Regardless of age, Howes believes it's never too late for Australians to take control of their super.

She often encounters members who come to a "realisation" at 40 years old about their super.

"They think, 'Oh my goodness I've only got 20 years to go to save more for retirement.'

"Some people may get to my age and they are in their 50s and think, 'I'm too late and haven't sorted out my super.'"

Another instance where members are prompted to think about the importance of their super is when their account balance reaches about the same level as their salary.

Howes says there are two aspects that make narrowing the super engagement gap challenging.

The first is the retired generation (or those about to retire) who are underfunded and do not have enough in retirement. What that could mean for them is worrying, she says.

The second is encouraging disengaged, younger members to do more about their super now to make a huge difference later.

She wants members to start thinking about their super at 25 or 30 rather than 45 years old.

"That is one of the main things we have been working on - how to engage people earlier. There is definitely a group of young people who are very engaged. It is a subset but that is encouraging to see."

When she talks about engagement, it's ultimately across all ages: Helping people at different life stages to maximise the position that they are in.

"If the changes we are making at BT can help people to do that, then I will be very happy."

Moving pieces

The launch of BT Superannuation 12 months ago is one way the firm is filling some of the weaknesses in the retirement system.

Howes says BT's superannuation offering ranges from a default super fund, from the time members join the work force, to more complex products or choice options.

"When they're ready to stop work, they can start an income stream. They can do all that in the one product. It's extremely flexible and allows people to engage and tailor their super to a large degree.

"This is a way where we can really help people to engage; it's highly digital and will allow members to easily keep track of their super," she explains.

In the 27 years since compulsory super came in, Howes has witnessed a story of constant change.

"The next two years will be no different. What I focus on is how I help my one million customers through all those changes."

At the time of the interview, Howes and her team were busy implementing a range of changes before the July 1 Protecting Your Superannuation Package reforms.

All the funds that are delivering strong member outcomes consistently, Howes says, will be the ones that survive the process - whatever branch of the industry they come from.

The Productivity Commission's 'best in show' list of super funds, which continues to split popular opinion across the industry, is a proposal BT has strongly advocated. "Out of all these changes, the good super funds will come to the surface."

During this period of intense change, a few things give Howes perspective.

Helping customers gain more wealth in their super account once they retire; living the lifestyle they want after the workforce; and engaging people earlier in this journey, she summarises.

"People don't think about banking and other finances differently; they just want us to help them own a home, sort out their super, run their business, protect their families etc.

"This, I think, is an easier way for us to help people with their financial needs."

Back yourself

Originally from Tasmania, Howes moved to Sydney when she was five years old.

She showed promise and skills in maths from a young age, which led to studying at Sydney-based selective high school James Ruse.

"That led naturally to wanting to do maths at university, but for people with maths degrees at the time, there were not a lot of opportunities in terms of jobs. It's very different now."

Actuarial studies was a way for Howes to study maths by having a job at the other end. "I didn't realise how much statistics would be involved," she laughs.

Every year at uni, Howes would have to sit a statistics exam on her birthday. "It was fascinating to do a course over three years, and only a third of the people that started finished."

Even after university, the actuarial exams didn't get any easier.

Only 30% of student who wanted to take their professional qualifications further passed, she says.

"What that taught me early on was perseverance. It was a long road. I didn't finish sitting all those exams until I was in my 20s. But it taught me a lot."

Having two teenage children of her own, Howes understands how confidence can be a real issue.

"If I could talk to myself from 30 years ago, when I was first starting in the workforce, it would be to say, 'Back yourself.'

"Know what you know, know what you don't know - but be confident in your abilities and back yourself," she would encourage her kids.

"No one is 100% confident that they can do everything. Particularly young women, I often see them underrate their abilities. They are actually very competent and talented - but they doubt themselves.

"I say, 'Go for it.'"

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