David Bryant left school in year ten and didn’t go to university. But that hasn’t stopped him climbing to the top of the superannuation industry, including leading Australian Unity’s Wealth & Capital Markets business.

“I had just the right amount of doubt,” he says. “I always had to prove to myself, as well as to everybody else, that I could do it. I innately knew I could do it, I just had to learn it.”

But Bryant has also been helped through his career by a string of mentors who saw his potential and brought out his best.

In his new role as CEO of Mercer’s Australian business and Leader for the Pacific, Bryant wants to play a similar mentoring role to drive a new phase of growth for the organisation.

“My role is to help remind everyone at Mercer just how good what they do is,” he says. “I also want us to tell our story and explain who we are and what we’re about so everyone else can really understand the really good things we do.”

Bryant is similarly focused on Mercer’s clients flourishing in a complex and ever-changing industry environment.

But scale isn’t necessarily the answer to sustained success for superannuation funds, he says. Indeed, Bryant warns that our obsession with scale risks creating a dangerous oligopoly, similar to Australia’s highly concentrated banking system.

“Is that the industry design that we think is the best outcome? I do think there is a future for small and large funds.”

David Bryant

An accidental journey into finance

Bryant grew up in Berowra, an outer northern suburb of Sydney. At school he showed talent but didn’t apply himself. His grade four teacher, Mr Regan, however, encouraged him. “He made me realise I did have some ability,” he says. “But he also taught me that if you see good people, particularly young people, you should give them a hand, encourage them and help them to be the best version of themselves.”

Bryant entered finance “quite accidentally”. When he left school at 16 because of family reasons he needed a job. He was good with numbers. “I went to a bank, as you did in those days,” he says, adding his first job was the only one he’s ever applied for during his long career.

At CBC Bank in St Leonards he began in the card services division processing vouchers in the back room, before moving through a flurry of different jobs under the tutelage of Chris Cassar, a member of the bank’s management.

At just 19, Bryant found himself managing a team of twenty people. “I still remember thinking, I have no idea how I got here in just a couple of years, but I’ve loved it. I’ve loved every job without exception.”

After a couple of years at CBC, in 1983 he got offered a job at Westpac in their financial services division, which is now known as BT. “The industry was just taking off. They had brought in lump sum taxation in superannuation and suddenly you had to do very complex tax calculations.”

At Westpac Bryant had a range of jobs, including super and unit trusts, custodian and security services, accounting and tax; all roles “which I was technically unqualified to do”. Yet through hard work he mastered them. Another mentor, John Lawson, had taken Bryant under his wing and helped him succeed.

State Street bought the Westpac Custody business in late 1995, and Bryant landed a role servicing Asian clients out of Sydney. He then had a stint with InTech Australia, getting exposure to the investing and consulting side of the business, followed by a stint at Perpetual working across super, personal advice and private clients, and becoming Chief Operating Officer for that division.

A little detour along the way

When approaching 40, Bryant, then living in Melbourne, wanted something different. He left Perpetual and bought an old rundown winery in the Yarra Valley. “I wanted to take a year or two off and spend more time with my young family.”

The winery was sold in 2017.

Bryant says spending time with family and friends is his priority. Apart from wine, he loves cooking, skiing and during the 1990s and into the 2000s he spent almost ten years competing in Ironman triathlons – a 4km swim, 180km bike ride, and marathon all on the same day.

However, after a couple of months of semi-retirement Bryant called for a weekly ‘team’ meeting, and his family told him to get a job. “I managed to annoy my family,” he says. “They let me know it would be a good idea if I went and did something a bit more productive with my time.”

From Australian Unity to Mercer

Fortunately, a former colleague, Rohan Mead, had joined Australian Unity, and offered Bryant the role of CEO and CIO.

When Bryant joined in 2004, Australian Unity was then a small business with $1 billion of predominantly old legacy products. By the time Bryant left the business this year, it had grown to $22 billion and was a well-diversified financial services business “with a wonderful team of people”.

In July, Bryant joined Mercer to head up its Australia and Pacific businesses. Mercer is a global leader in retirement, investments, talent and people solutions with over 2,000 people in Australia and New Zealand.

Bryant has a clear brief: to contribute to Mercer being the best it can be in Australia and New Zealand.

He says Mercer is “one of the smartest organisations in our industry, with an outstanding reputation and purpose”, yet sees an opportunity to reenergise the business. “Mercer’s presence wasn’t as strong as it had been in the 1990s when I got to know it. So I thought there was a challenge there.”

He likens it to a house with an amazing view. “The owners get used it. But a new visitor says, “wow, what a fantastic view, when did you last look out the window?”

For the first three months Bryant has been helping the Mercer team on existing projects. That has included working on a business strategy, how to make Mercer’s products more competitive, clarifying its market proposition, and defining the right clients for the firm.

Mercer will focus on looking after its clients, Bryant says; but looking after every single one of them, not just the large clients. “That philosophy has served me well throughout my career,” he says. “I want every client to feel special. That very personal trust-based experience is what I would want every client of Mercer to feel all the time.”

Bryant says he believes his contribution to Mercer will be “very modest” and essentially helping the dynamic of the organisation and the people within it.

In a sense Bryant has now become the mentor. “I have been a significant beneficiary of the interest, kindness and mentorship of people. I carry that with me in what I do. It’s very important for me to develop our people and make sure we have got very good gender balance, diversity and inclusion in the business.”

I have been a significant beneficiary of the interest and kindness and mentorship of people. I carry that with me in what I do. It’s very important for me to develop our people and make sure we have got very good gender balance, diversity and inclusion, in the business.

Bryant’s long experience and new role give him an excellent vantage point to survey the industry and the rapid changes it is undergoing, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.

Bryant says the Government’s early release of super scheme during COVID has created a longer-term issue.

“The money taken out of super is just part of the Government’s debt,” he says. “There is a debt that isn’t showing up on the Government’s balance sheet: the long-term impact of early withdrawal and how that affects people who in a lot of circumstances are the most in need of having more [superannuation] not less.”

“When we talk about budget repair and debt repair, we need not to forget that” he adds.

The Retirement Income Review needs to address that group of people who have been affected, Bryant says. “They have had to access some of their super, and a lot of those people were the ones who needed more help in building up their super, so are potentially going to need more support.”

Possible options for further support include lower (or no) tax in super for lower income earners, with the cost potentially recovered by applying a slightly higher rate of tax for others. “The benefits of the superannuation system don’t need to be identical for every participant, every time. Small changes could help improve equity.”

On the Budget reforms

Bryant says the concept of performance measures for funds announced in the recent Federal budget is right, but the devil is in the detail in defining what is an underperforming fund and a competitive fund.

He notes that markets can head in one direction for a long time, particularly when they are performing strongly. “You can end up being classified as an underperforming fund because you feel markets are overheated, and have lowered the risk,” he says. “So you’ve created a system where sensible/conservative loses out, and where risk is both unnecessarily increased and not well recognised.”

“There is nothing wrong with the concept,” he adds. “But, gee, it’s a challenging one to implement.”

Bryant, however, says the biggest challenge facing funds is that the combination of low price and performance has never been more important, as the industry pursues scale efficiency, and attracting new members becomes increasingly competitive.

“The question for everyone is: how will you get there? Those things around price and performance are not going away, they will become ever more demanding. So what are you doing about how your fund, your business, is shaped?”

Scale isn’t the only answer to the challenge, Bryant says. “You can achieve scale benefits, you just have to rethink your business model.”

Funds must determine what their value proposition is, what makes them distinctive and valuable to their members, and how they can most efficiently and effectively implement all of the other things which need to be done for their members, Bryant says.

“Managing the member experience is critical, being smart in using partners to help with administration, investments and technology (in whole or part) is the key for funds in being able to determine their own futures, and the future for their members.”

At an industry level, Bryant is concerned about the drive for scale at all costs. “Taken to its logical conclusion you end up with a form of oligopoly like we have in banking.”

Taken to its logical conclusion you end up with a form of oligopoly like we have in banking.

Bryant cites Australian Unity where he is still a customer. “It’s a different experience than dealing with a larger bank. It may not be absolutely the cheapest price, but the service experience is a very different one. You might choose to pay a little bit more.”

The scale quest is in part driven by a misconception that more participants increase regulatory risk. “If we got an over-consolidated industry you could make the same argument. I think a sensible competitive field with a range of options that people can choose from themselves is the best outcome.

“The assumption that bigger is always better, that’s not proven in other areas of financial services, certainly not banking. Members of funds actually want a range of choices.”

Looking ahead, Bryant is purely focused on his new role at Mercer. “I’m loving the role and the organisation and the challenge,” he says. “When I walked in, I was delighted to find that many of the impressions I had about Mercer were very much true. I was incredibly taken with the purpose and culture of the organisation. The people are brilliant. What the organisation does is brilliant.”

“If I’m thinking about the next job, that’s when I know I shouldn’t be in the one I’m in,” he adds.

As a young banking prodigy, Bryant used to be the youngest person in the room. “Now I’m generally the oldest,” he says. “But I still love what I do. I’m incredibly honoured to have the job that I have. And I marvel at how the industry has changed and have loved my time in it. I don’t want to think it might come to an end one day. I want to enjoy it for as long as I can.”

Bryant has also just been elected as Chairman of the Financial Services Council.

Despite coming an incredibly long way from being a year ten graduate at Berowra, Bryant believes he still has further to climb. “I’m trying to find my limit. I haven’t found it yet, and I’m hoping I don’t find it.”