When two tradies turned up at Maree Pallisco’s house, the national superannuation leader at EY baled them up, firing off a series of questions. Did they have super? Yes. Which fund were they with? They told her. But then she asked them if they ever thought about their super? “Nup”, they replied.

Asked why not, they said they couldn’t do anything with it. They were wrong, Pallisco told them, and if they learnt how to better manage their super now they would be better off in the long run.

The conversation highlights the passion that Pallisco has developed for super, and also what she sees as the industry’s biggest challenge – getting Australians to engage. “It goes back to that mindset around ‘it’s all done for me’. Super comes out of salaries and goes into a fund. People view it as something they don’t have to start thinking about until they get close to retirement.”

Pallisco believes that if Australia’s superannuation industry—and funds themselves—are to better engage with members and build trust, they must create a clear vision of success. They must also improve understanding by simplifying products and services, and perhaps most importantly, they need to educate young Australians on the importance of super. “It needs to start early,” she says.

Despite her obvious passion, Pallisco fell into superannuation. The daughter of Italian migrants, she grew up in Melbourne. Her mother worked for a financial planner and Pallisco would listen to her talk about her job, and eventually she did a work experience stint with the planner. “I quickly learned I liked that,” she says.

After school, she started a Bachelor of (Business) Accounting degree, making her the first person on both sides of her family to go to university.

While finishing her degree she applied for an administration role at superannuation administrator Jacques Martin as a way to get her foot in the door. They rang her back to say she didn’t get the job, but instead they would offer her a three-month contract as an accountant. It turned into a full-time role and she stayed for six years, working across all aspects of superannuation, including administration, unit pricing, investment and compliance. “I still use what I learned back then today,” Pallisco says. “While the industry is bigger now, it pretty much operates the same way.”

During a brief stint at Watson Wyatt, EY approached her to work in their superannuation team. Despite being only a director she was asked to become EY’s national superannuation leader. Such senior roles typically went to partners.

Pallisco says she took the job on the condition that “I didn’t have to ask for permission, but rather to beg for forgiveness”. That is, she wanted the leeway to make her own decisions. The reply was: as long as you don’t do anything stupid! “I’ve been head of the team now for eight years and managed to stay out of trouble,” she quips.

EY has a large superannuation audit and tax practice, but in the last eight years it has also built a strong advisory practice doing strategy advisory and implementation work for fund clients across technology, process improvement, automation, and financial advice platforms.

A large focus of EY’s superannuation advisory business has been working with super funds on their operating models and what these will look like in the future.

In 2013, EY made Pallisco a partner, something she would never have dreamed of when she first joined. “The respect you have for partners coming in as a junior is quite daunting. Actually seeing myself as one of those individuals wasn’t something I could picture back then.”

Pallisco also recalls how, when she first started at EY, she received some life-changing advice after she apprehensively had to inform a partner that she had encountered a problem. The partner paused and then said “nothing is a problem, it’s a challenge with a solution”. “I have lived with that. It’s so true. Everybody has challenges, but there is always a way out.”

And in terms of the industry, Pallisco says that all funds face similar issues: what do they want to be when they grow up? How do they engage with members and deliver members’ retirement needs efficiently?

The key to solving the challenge is to begin with the end in mind. “What does the end look like? Where do you want to go?” There is no one answer that covers all funds, she says. “Every fund in my view needs to think about it individually. They all have different cohorts of members. They need to understand how they can best service their particular members.”

That requires deep thinking and reflection. “Consider it,” she says. “Don’t just make a quick decision.”

Pallisco says the importance of goal setting underpins her advice not just to superfunds but also to her children. (She has a 16-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. When she gets ‘Super Mum’ cards from her kids she jokes that she doesn’t know if it’s because she’s an amazing mum or because of the industry she works in.)

“It’s about taking control of their own future and setting goals,” she says. “My advice to super funds—and my kids—is, what are you trying to achieve? What does the end goal look like? If you don’t have an end goal it’s difficult to put wheels in motion.”

It’s about taking control of their own future and setting goals,” she says. “My advice to super funds—and my kids—is, what are you trying to achieve? What does the end goal look like? If you don’t have an end goal it’s difficult to put wheels in motion

While each super fund needs to reflect on its strategic position and role, Pallisco says the broader industry also needs to work on building trust with the public.

She says that superannuation can be too complex which makes it difficult to understand. The industry, she says, is trying to create more products. “But I think it’s more around how do we service these individuals rather than creating new products,” she says. “There are lots of products out there already but it’s not going to help them if they don’t understand it. How do we actually help them? And what’s the service we can actually provide them as a support mechanism rather than trying to sell them something new.”

Funds need to provide members with ‘easy information’; but building a better understanding of super begins with educating young Australians. “Education is important. I’d love to see financial literacy or superannuation on the Australian curriculum.”

Building a better understanding of super begins with educating young Australians. “Education is important. I’d love to see financial literacy or superannuation on the Australian curriculum

Pallisco says that when her daughter got a part-time job she was asked to choose a super fund. “The first thing she did was hand it over to me and said, ‘what do you think’.”

“Every child that’s going through school will have superannuation going into the future, but when they start working they don’t know how to respond to making that decision. So we need to start that education earlier and we keep talking about it, but the only way it’s going to happen is if we get it on the curriculum. Otherwise it’s not going to happen.”

In some respect, activities like the Financial Services Royal Commission and Productivity Commission are forcing the industry into navel gazing, and Pallisco says a likely potential outcome is more regulation and more involvement from regulators.

She is wary of too much regulatory overlap, but says whether or not the superannuation industry faces too much regulation is a difficult question. She believes it must be answered in the context of the industry’s overall goals. “We need to take stock of what we are trying to achieve and where we are at,” she says. “Until we have defined that, it’s difficult to say whether we have enough regulation or not.”

Despite her strong career drive in the super industry, Pallisco has also cultivated outside interests. She owns a music production company, Sound City Melbourne, with her brother Tony who manages leading artists including former X Factor Platinum artists Nathaniel Willemse and Taylor Henderson, and The Voice finalist Tim Morrison.

While Tony is the ‘creative’ sibling, Pallisco brings a more strategic angle to the business. “I’m able to guide him from a strategic perspective and make sure his objectives are aligned to where we want to get to.”

Pallisco says she loves working at EY because it has allowed her to work with extremely intelligent people from all walks of life. “It’s not only accountants, but also the likes of engineers and organisational psychologists,” she says. “We’re hiring people with lots of different types of skills to be able to respond to our clients’ evolving needs and challenges.”

Overall, Pallisco is pleased with the fact she has stayed in the superannuation industry for close to 25 years. “You see people go in and out,” she says. “I fell into it, but I’ve been able to build a career in the industry and still have a strong passion for it; a strong will and drive to make sure the industry continues to be successful.”

Success, she says, is the public seeing the industry as working for them. “Part of my role and part of my goal—whether with EY or as an individual—is making sure that is achieved; that the industry does have consumers’ trust and superannuation is spoken about as something that everyone should have, should desire and should want to manage closely.

“I want people to take control of their future, with the industry supporting them along the way to be able to do that.”