Justine Earl-Smith was settling into her new job as ASFA’s Commercial Director, excited to be organising the 2020 ASFA Conference in Brisbane – one of the largest annual pension gatherings in the world.

Then COVID-19 struck.

After just three weeks in the job, Earl-Smith, along with the rest of ASFA’s staff, was sent home. “It was probably not as soft a landing in a new job as you’d expect,” she says.

So all these months later, how are the Conference plans looking?

“We are holding fast on holding a conference, in a physical environment, in Brisbane, at the end of November,” Earl-Smith says.

The superannuation industry has been facing enormous collective challenges, from unprecedented market volatility, early access to super, to remote work.

Earl-Smith says the 2020 ASFA Conference is a unique and much needed opportunity for the whole industry to reunite …in person.

“It’s critical for the industry to come together in the physical environment,” she says. “We need to get together to reflect on the challenges of the year past; and to focus on the opportunities to improve and emerge strong, with a real focus on bettering outcomes for our members.”

We need to get together to reflect on the challenges of the year past; and to focus on the opportunities to improve and emerge strong, with a real focus on bettering outcomes for our members.

Earl-Smith is now focused on producing an amazing event in the COVID-19 era. “We have to reimagine how we deliver the Conference,” she says.
Justine Earl-Smith
Photography by Aran Anderson.

Adapting and thriving through change

Earl-Smith is used to change and adapting to new environments.

Born in Brisbane, she was just six months old when her father, who worked for an English insurance company, was sent to Kuala Lumpur. Malaya, as it was then known, was a hardship posting with civil disturbances part of everyday life.

Her father, who taught her the value of hard work, was next posted to Singapore and then to Nairobi in Kenya. “In those environments you had to adapt very rapidly to things changing around you,” she says. “You had to reinvent yourself each time you moved to a new country.”

At nine, Earl-Smith was packed off to boarding school in Brisbane. After graduating, she completed a Bachelor of Business with a major in marketing at the Queensland University of Technology.

After university when visiting her parents in Nairobi, en route to London, she met the managing director of Lonrho Hotels, a luxury hotel operator with properties including the Mount Kenya Safari Club. He was looking for someone to build a sales and marketing team.

Earl-Smith was offered the job when she got to London and began marketing Lonrho across Europe.

The Lonrho MD became a brilliant mentor and taught her the importance of trust and demonstrating authenticity, and she has tried to model that in senior roles in her career.

Earl-Smith stayed in the hotel industry for almost a decade including a stint as Director of Sales and Marketing at Asian spa resort pioneer, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, and Director of Sales at Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.

She then moved into corporate hospitality as Manager of Hospitality for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games where she had just eight months to create, sell and deliver corporate hospitality for 25,000 guests across five venues. “It was one of the most challenging things I have done from a hospitality perspective,” she says. “It was very successful, but it probably almost killed me.”
Justine Earl-Smith

Finding the right balance

Earl-Smith’s life changed focus when she got married, had a son and worked three days a week consulting in the sporting world.

An outdoors person—one of her nicknames is ‘sporty spice’—she is hoping to ski in New Zealand in August this year. She is also a rugby lover, and secretary of the Easts Junior Beasties where her 13-year-old son plays.

When her son started at school she joined Place Management NSW (formerly the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority), which owns and manages NSW’s foreshore assets including The Rocks and Darling Harbour.

Her varying roles included creating events with the private sector, and helping manage larger events such as New Year’s Eve, Vivid and Australia Day.

After eight years in the public service it was good timing when Earl-Smith was approached for the role of Commercial Director at ASFA.

Helping the industry refocus and rebuild post COVID

“I was looking for an opportunity to do something different. I was inspired by the whole area and the passion Martin [ASFA Chief Executive Officer, Martin Fahy] brings to the super industry.

“The more he got to talking about how this industry works, I thought, absolutely this is a total opportunity and shift for me to bring what I know, particularly in terms of trying to inspire people and get the best out of them.”

As Commercial Director, Earl-Smith has oversight of ASFA’s conferences and events, including the 2020 ASFA Conference.

Under Earl-Smith’s predecessor, Nicolette Hughes, who held the role for ten years, ASFA’s annual conference has been hugely successful. The 2019 ASFA Conference recently took out the MEA NSW Association Event of the Year at the MEALIVE 2019 Awards.

“The Conferences have been hugely successful for many, many years,” Earl-Smith says.

COVID-19 has radically altered the environment. In the past few months, Earl-Smith was forced to adapt ASFA’s physical events to virtual.

What to expect at the ASFA 2020 Conference

The 2020 Conference will be a physical event at The Brisbane Convention & Entertainment Centre (BCEC).

The Conference programming—in both keynotes and parallel sessions—will deal with the many challenges presented by COVID-19 and how this impacts the way the industry will operate. It will focus on the key questions of “How do we do better? How do we bring the customer back into focus?”

Some of the topics to be examined throughout the three days will include:

  • the changing nature of pensions in a world of increasing debt, central bank interventions and the demand for a low carbon future
  • the challenges around liquidity management at a time where members have been given unprecedented early access to super
  • the future of super as Australia charts a path from the challenges of 2020. What is the next horizon for superannuation?

The Conference will also provide delegates with the latest updates from key regulators, and it will explore perennials, including member engagement, advice, cyber risk, crisis management, fund mergers and insurance.

Earl-Smith says the Conference has always been about bringing together thought leaders around the world and locally “to interrogate what’s affecting our industry”.

“This year is going to be huge. What are the broad influences from UK, Europe, and China? What does this mean locally and more broadly in the region?”

This year is going to be huge. What are the broad influences from UK, Europe, and China? What does this mean locally and more broadly in the region?

Lord Adair Turner, the former Chair of the UK’s Financial Services Authority, who played a leading role in the post-GFC redesign of global banking, will reflect on the recent upheavals in global economy and what it means for the future.

Earl-Smith says that given people have spent much of this year looking at screens and engaging on Zoom calls, she wants to ensure the Conference has the right balance of engagement and energy in the room.

She is exploring how to make it more interactive, including workshops with different learning experiences. (Delegates can check ASFA’s website for updates on workshops.)

Safety, of course, will be paramount. BCEC has developed a set of COVID safe guidelines covering personal hygiene safety, food safety, air quality control, surface cleaning and sanitising, with monitoring and management of these processes.

These activities will be bolstered by ‘VenueShield’, a new environmental hygiene protocol, being implemented by the BCEC’s managers, ASM Global, across 325 facilities worldwide.

Earl-Smith says she is working very closely with the venue to ensure that any social distancing requirements that may be in place are adhered to.

“As the situation changes, we will, along with the venue, respond accordingly to ensure we alleviate any delegate concerns.”

And, of course, there will be a lot of fun along the way. The dinner event on Thursday night is much loved by delegates with many dancing away the night. “I have a lot to live up to in terms of the entertainment factor. Last year the Ten Tenors and Mark Seymour entertained – suffice to say we will look to surprise and delight our delegates again this year.”

Earl-Smith says she wouldn’t have made such great progress in organising the Conference without the support of the Conference Committee. “They have been very generous. They are all industry people who give up time to help us deliver an exciting program of events.”

After an extremely trying time, it will be a joy for the entire superannuation industry to come together once again, to learn, network, plan for the future, and to let their hair down a bit.


The ASFA Conference will now be delivered virtually from 10-12 February 2021.

Justine Earl-Smith
Photography by Aran Anderson.