Cover Story: Jo-Anne Bloch
Between the lines
So far, Jo-Anne Bloch's career has seen her spend time across each of super's thickly drawn lines. After speaking to the Mercer head of industry and public sector, Harrison Worley writes about the value of the lessons learned between each one.

Mercer head of industry and public sector superannuation Jo-Anne Bloch has done a lot in her lifetime.

Between moving to Australia from Zimbabwe as a 12 year old, a stint in politics and leading the Financial Planning Association of Australia, Bloch's done it all.

There's still gaps in the system, which goes to the heart of understanding super. I think we've got some way to go there.
And what has she learned? The importance of passion.

A former student politician at the University of New South Wales, Bloch says passion figures heavily in her make up, and explains the three years of vigorous "caucusing, meeting, battling and campaigning" at university as some of the best days of her life.

"It brought out my love of conflict, of negotiations, of passion, policy, purpose," she says.

"It tapped into who I am, which is a person that needs to be passionate about what I'm interested in."

Representing the Commerce faculty on the student council, Bloch says her years in student politics were wonderful, and regales how the typically "cut and thrust" nature of the political beast led to a meeting with her future husband.

"I don't even recall what the issues were, honestly. It was just great to be involved, debating and yelling with passion and purpose," she says.

"And in fact, that's how I met my husband, because he was running for Secretary or Treasurer of the Council and I was running for President."

With both combatants needing a preference deal to further their ambitions, an offer was made.

"He said to me that we could swap preferences if I had dinner with him," she says.

"We both lost the election, but I've been with him ever since."

So having dived right into the muck at UNSW, it serves as no great surprise that after just one year as a graduate at Hewlett-Packard, Bloch found herself in a Ministerial office for an interview.

It was with future New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, who at the time was serving as Minister for Environment Planning and Consumer Affairs.

Admitting she had "no idea" what the title of Carr's Ministerial portfolio meant, Bloch took the interview.

"And I remember my interview with Bob Carr was something like 'Jo-Anne why do you want to work in the public sector? The private sector pays so much more.' And I said, 'Oh, really?'," she says.

"I said 'No, I just want to work in politics.' And he said, 'Great, you've got the job.' And that was it."

Joining as the Parliamentary Liaison Officer, Bloch's role was to manage correspondence between the Cabinet office and five Ministerial departments. It's clear Bloch enjoyed her years with Carr, crediting him with teaching her vital skills.

"I just loved everything about the political environment," she says.

"He taught me how to write, how to speak to different constituents, and he could quote any Shakespeare play completely from beginning to end, without any reference at any point in time.

"He was a great teacher at the time."

Beyond the lessons Carr could pass on, Bloch says the role broadened her knowledge of government and the public service, and reinforced the importance of politics, democracy and campaigning. Which is fortunate, given the superannuation industry - grappling with Award super at the time - was her next stop.

Bloch joined Nexis - which she explains had been set up by National Mutual to foster the industry fund segment in its early days - and became the first employee of Rest.

She says the move to industry super wasn't strategic or intentional, despite her connections to the Labor movement.

"I kind of grabbed every opportunity I could, and made the most of it," Bloch says.

A stint with National Mutual came soon after, before Bloch moved across super's lines for the first time, joining Sedgwick Noble Lowndes in business development to grow the firm's corporate super business.

When Mercer acquired the firm in 1998, Bloch was part of the team helping to integrate it into the company. After a year, she joined Macquarie as a contractor, working for the first time in the retail sector, with an eye on setting up her own business.

"I never ended up actually setting that up, because I was so engrossed in Macquarie that I didn't do anything else," she says.

Having left Macquarie in 2000, Bloch took a role at former superannuation and employee benefits firm NSP Buck, working under a previous colleague from Sedgwick Noble Lowndes.

Asked why she continued to work in super, Bloch talks about her passion for financial independence, particularly when it comes to women.

"I was always very passionate about the fact that super was compulsory and it was increasing people's retirement and savings," Bloch says.

"I've actually been most passionate about helping women become more financially independent, because I think that gives you a lot more options."

Sitting on the Premier's Council for Women during Carr's time in New South Wales' top job, Bloch was involved in taking the message of financial independence on tour, particularly to regional and indigenous communities.

She says the common themes of financial independence for women, and the benefits of super's increased coverage following the rollout of the superannuation guarantee have underpinned her interest in the industry.

"Super used to be for public servants, for wealthy people, for lucky people who worked in executive positions in corporations," Bloch says.

"And in the late 80s, the government-industry-union nexus changed that dramatically and enabled super to be much more prevalent, which I thought was a really, really good thing."

With the industry keeping Bloch interested, she set about understanding the specifics of its machinations.

"There was always something new to learn, there was always a new market to conquer, there was always some different aspect to understand, which is why in my history I've pretty much done everything in super," she says.

"From admin through to investments through to insurance through to all the different segments. Because there was always something interesting and different to learn and understand, off such a strong foundation."

Asked what super's most interesting aspect is, Bloch points to the role of the consumer, which she says is also the least advanced.

With super "hoist" on consumers, Bloch says Australia still has not found a way to conquer financial literacy. The system's compulsory nature and its series of gaps mean some people still slip through.

"We've developed a massive, mostly successful industry. We've improved coverage, and people have nest eggs. We're now getting to the nub of performance, fees and competition," Bloch says.

"But have we solved for the fact that women still retire with less? Have we solved for the fact that there's still people who aren't getting their entitlements because employers aren't paying them? For multiple accounts? For inefficiencies?

"There's still gaps in the system, which goes to heart of understanding super and the benefits of super. And I think we've got some way to go there."

Following four years at NSP Buck, Bloch joined the Investment and Financial Services Association of Australia - now known as the Financial Services Council - as deputy chief executive, before heading to the UK to re-link with Mercer.

Her new focus was on developing a pension service to help the nation's retirement plans retain their trusteeship, but hand over the actuarial, investment and administration responsibilities to Mercer.

A "master trust without the trust" as Bloch calls it.

She highlights the regulatory environment as one of the most interesting aspects of her UK experience, noting the sheer size of the regulatory structure when other European actors became involved.

"Imagine Australia's regulatory regime," she says.

"Imagine it was all of that, and double it."

Returning to Australia in 2006, Bloch opted for a change of sector, launching herself into financial advice as chief executive of the Financial Planning Association of Australia.

"It was a great opportunity, and it was time to come home," Bloch says.

Her time at the association was marked by challenge. With hindsight, Bloch says she probably didn't understand what she was really getting herself into.

After four "tumultuous' years, Bloch headed back to Mercer. The firm gave her the opportunity to work in a corporate financial advice business, where she could apply her passion for "the customer at the end of the day getting good financial advice".

She says that with the variation in the firm's client base, it couldn't pick and choose who it would and wouldn't give advice to.

"We had to develop different advice models that suited different memberships," she says.

When the firm put out the call for somebody to lead a new innovation hub in the US in 2014,

Bloch put her hand up, packed up the family and moved to New Jersey.

She says the three-year experience was amazing, pointing to the development of Mercer's online consulting tool PeoplePro. The service allows retired Mercer consultants to jump back in the game and provide smaller firms (such as startups) with hour-based advice across a range of problems, saving them money and enabling the online delivery of consultant advice.

When Mercer bought superannuation administrator Pillar in December 2016 - a firm Bloch sat on the board of during her period at Macquarie - Bloch knew it was time to come home and lead its integration into the global company.

Almost three years after taking the role, Bloch's remit has shifted towards the client side of Mercer's super business. Nowadays, she leads the delivery of services across the entire segment as head of industry and public sector superannuation.

She says the firm is focused on understanding what trustees of industry and public sector funds want in order to compete, deliver strong services to members and remain sustainable.

"We think of ourselves as the 'Intel Inside'," she says.

"So you can pick your device but we'll help power it. You may choose the way you want to interface with your customers, we may do that for you. But at the end of the day, we're the chip, the calculation and data engine, the ecosystem that delivers the information and experience on your behalf to your members."

Asked what super's biggest issue is right now, Bloch is unequivocal: trust. More specifically, do Australians trust their fund to put their interests first?

"Wouldn't it be nice if when a member thinks about their super fund, they feel proud, confident. They trust their super fund. I think that's really important," Bloch says.

In a recent opinion piece, Bloch pointed to how the Royal Commission galvanised the nation when it came to super. Around $11 billion in retirement savings shifted away from retail funds in 2018 as the inquiry put a dent in Australia's confidence in longstanding wealth institutions.

According to Bloch, one of the positive's to emerge from the last two years of challenges in financial services is super's more prominent position in the collective minds of Australians, with the Protecting Your Super package clearly hitting a nerve.

She says Mercer doesn't believe the low engagement levels of the past will return, but warns the industry that as engagement increases, super needs to be more positive in its communication - opposed to communicating with members when their insurance is under threat due to legislative change.

"The engagement with PYS was 'We're going to take something away from you'. And we saw the call centre service explode. I'm not sure we always want to do that. Although that was a formula, it's not what we want," she says.

As for how to position the industry in the future, Bloch wants Australians to think of super as a utility. There when they need it, with enough contact for people to understand if something has gone amiss, and the confidence and knowledge for them to be able to do something about it.

She adds it's time for blanket campaigns to end, with personalization on the rise. Funds, she says, need to be able to engage personally to solve the question of whether members have enough for the variety of potential scenarios that await them.

"I do have some concerns that inertia will set in, but you know, that's why data is such a huge issue and why so many funds are looking at personalisation," she says.

"The challenge for us is getting close to people, understanding when they are going to be interested in super, and helping them take things forward. And that's still the holy grail."

It's also an applicable lesson no matter which side of super's thickly drawn lines you sit on.

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