Qantas Super CEO Michael Clancy was curious: just how confident are Australians in their superannuation system? To find out, his fund surveyed over 1,000 Australian adults between March 26 and April 9 this year.

The Qantas Super CSBA Retirement Confidence Index revealed a significant lack of confidence in the Australian super system, with member confidence on average running at just 5.1 out of 10.

The result was surprising because Australia’s super system is widely regarded as one of the world’s best. The recent Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index 2018, for example, found that Australia had the fourth-best retirement income system globally (though it had slipped from third place compared with the prior year).

“There is a disconnect between how confident individual Australians feel about affording a comfortable retirement and the fact that we have one of the best retirement systems in the world,” Clancy says.

Clancy is now on a mission to build that confidence, not only for his members at Qantas Super, but nationwide. He wants the super system to provide members with simple-to-understand information and educational material, to improve financial advice options, to nudge them in the direction of good financial behaviour, and most importantly, to connect with members earlier.

“If we can build their confidence in their financial future, we can make a meaningful difference in the retirement lifestyle they’ll be able to afford,” he says.

If we can build their confidence in their financial future, we can make a meaningful difference in the retirement lifestyle they’ll be able to afford

At school, Clancy had no strong view about a likely career. He grew up in Parramatta in a stable environment: so stable in fact that he was born and grew up in the one house. His father forged a successful career in the NSW Department of Education, instilling in him values of integrity, honesty, and an element of public service.

Because Clancy was good at maths, he decided to study accounting and finance, and worked as an accountant for the first three years after high school. “But after a few audits I realised it wasn’t for me,” he says.

About that time a friend suggested he apply for a role at an asset consulting firm, Frank Russell Company, later Russell Investments, the world’s largest global asset consulting firm.

Even though he didn’t really know what asset consulting was, he figured he would regret not exploring the option, so he applied and was successful. He worked with consulting clients as an analyst, and then moved into an investment manager research role, travelling Australia, Asia, and other developed markets, researching and evaluating investment managers as part of a global research team.

“It opened up the financial services landscape and the world of global pension asset consulting and investment management to me,” he says. “I had the privilege to meet some of the smartest characters in the global investment industry. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn from the best in the industry.”

Frank Russell Company’s largest client in Australia was MLC which was then building up its own internal investment capability. They hired Clancy as Senior Research Analyst, Manager Research. He developed his investment knowledge and skills, and after an 18-month stint in the UK, MLC gave him the opportunity to lead its investment team as the General Manager of its Asset Management Division.

The new role required a difficult switch from a highly “analytical and rational” investment role to leading a team of talented investment professionals.

“My career has always operated in around 4 to 5-year chunks,” he says. “Not that I get itchy feet, but I do like to be 30 to 40 per cent outside my comfort zone most days. I do like to be learning new things, being challenged in different ways, and growing and developing.”

Clancy gained valuable exposure to the business side of superannuation and investment.

In July 2009, he was elevated to Executive General Manager, Investment Platforms, NAB Wealth, where he combined his investment and general business management backgrounds.

NAB Wealth, with $10 billion a year of sales, included MasterKey, Plum, JANA, and National Online Trading. In the role, Clancy refreshed the portfolio of investment platforms, built and launched retirement oriented capital guaranteed investment solutions, and sponsored the project that developed nabtrade, the NAB’s modern online share trading platform.

He left NAB as part of a management restructure in 2013 and consulted for a while before jointing Qantas Super as CEO in November 2015. Clancy says he was immediately attracted to Qantas Airways’ iconic status.

Qantas Super oversees $8 billion of super for 32,000 past and present employees of the airline. As the number of corporate super funds has fallen dramatically in recent decades, the fund has been one of the survivors.

Clancy says it made sense for smaller corporate funds to merge with others or close, but he believes that Qantas Super has the scale to compete with other funds.

When he arrived at the fund, Clancy says Qantas Super was in good shape. “My role wasn’t to turn around something that wasn’t working well,” he says.

But he says that while the fund was member-focused—it is a not-for-profit super fund only open to Qantas employees—“there were opportunities for us to really put ourselves into the shoes of our members and improve how we can help them.”

Clancy says over the past three years he and his leadership team have instilled a new purpose at Qantas Super: to help members be confident about their financial future so they can enjoy retirement.

Many people avoid thinking about super because it is seen as too hard and something that can be dealt with later, he says, but if retirement planning is delayed too long, by the time people get around to it, it’s too late to make any difference.

To build member confidence at Qantas Super, Clancy and his team have taken a number of important steps.

They firstly listened to members and their concerns through formal focus groups and greater engagement. That allowed them to build member personas and lifetime journeys. They also began to tailor written and verbal messages to members, and established style guidelines for language and tone.

As part of the confidence-building purpose, Clancy is also driving the fund’s unconflicted intra-fund financial advice. He says an important competitive advantage for a corporate super fund is the ability to speak with members in the workplace.

“A large proportion of our members are based in 15 or so workplaces around Australia, and running educational seminars and arranging financial advice sessions is a powerful way of building member confidence,” he says.

But the fund isn’t only focused on how members feel, but also on improving members’ retirement income adequacy (the proportion of members who will enjoy a lifestyle in retirement equivalent to that before they retired). Many members are approaching, or are in, the retirement age zone, and Qantas Super doesn’t want them to face an ‘expectation gap’ between lifestyle expectations and reality.

Investment performance is a key plank in driving retirement income adequacy. Clancy says Qantas Super, like its parent airline, takes a safety-first approach. “We don’t invest like other funds,” he says. “We think our first job is to protect the retirement savings of our members, so we are focused on constructing thoughtfully diversified portfolios that should perform well when markets get tough.”

The fund also seeks to be competitive after fees and taxes, and after adjusting for risk. Clancy says as of June 2018, Qantas Super’s investment options are generally exceeding their return and risk objectives set out in the fund’s Product Disclosure Statement. Also, risk-adjusted returns after fees and taxes are ahead of the median super fund over the time horizons that matter.

Clancy says that corporate super funds can have a bright future if they have scale, but also a genuine member focus, and a clear value proposition.

Qantas is unique, he says, because of its ‘safety-first’ investment approach, but also its insurance offering. Many of Qantas Super’s members couldn’t get Total & Permanent Disability, nor Income Protection, insurance individually because of their risky occupations, so Qantas Super makes sure it provides these at competitive rates.

Clancy says one of the terrific things about Qantas Airways is its approach to diversity and workplace flexibility. “It makes managing my work life balance relatively easy,” he says, adding that he has four children (and one grandchild) with his “wonderful wife”, to whom he has been married for 27 years. “Family, and spending time with them, is really important to me.”

Clancy heads up a major corporate fund at a period of significant change for the industry, including the Financial Services Royal Commission and Productivity Commission. He says they will improve member outcomes.

“One of the strengths of Australia’s super industry over the last three decades has been the willingness of Government, regulators and super funds themselves to review how the industry is serving its members, look for ways of doing this better, and implementing change.”

But Clancy says he is focused on a bigger picture: building member confidence in superannuation.

And as reflected in his development of the Qantas Super CSBA Retirement Confidence Index, Clancy has a broader desire to boost confidence, not just at Qantas Super, but across the entire industry.

But how does the industry boost confidence?

Clancy says they key is for the industry to encourage members to think about super earlier in their lives and to be more proactive. He says that at 55 to 60 years of age Australians tend to become more interested in super, but the challenge is to get 40 to 45-year-olds more engaged.

“If funds can engage members when they are younger, they can help them improve their general financial capability, and encourage them to think through their retirement goals,” he says. “They can then work to close any retirement lifestyle expectation gaps by setting more realistic expectations or encouraging members to save more or work longer.”

If funds can engage members when they are younger, they can help them improve their general financial capability, and encourage them to think through their retirement goals

Driving early engagement requires trying new and different things.

A major challenge is human behaviour. People treat their ‘future selves’ like strangers. Qantas Super created a virtual reality game show called Retire Right to put people in the shoes of their ‘future selves’.

Retire Right uses a virtual game show format to illustrate how topping up your super now can directly result in a better lifestyle later.

While driving broader industry change is important, Clancy’s primary focus is on Qantas Super.

2019 will be a milestone year for the fund. “Next year is our 80th anniversary, which is nearly 50 years longer than the modern super system,” Clancy says. “There are not many super funds in Australia that have been around 80 years.”

Clancy’s work to build member confidence and play to the fund’s strengths is helping build the foundations for another 80 years of serving members.

Ultimately, Clancy says Qantas Super wants to enable its members to do in retirement the things they have always wanted to do.

“Many Qantas employees love travelling and look forward to experiencing the richness and diversity of what the world has to offer,” he says. “In a direct way, they help Qantas Airways’ customers see the world every day. Our members look forward to being able to enjoy similar experiences when they have the opportunity to do so in retirement.”

Photography by Aran Anderson.