Graeme Russell, the soon-to-retire chief executive of Media Super, has seen it all. On July 1, 2008, for instance, he was a trustee director of what was then JUST Super and a director of what was then the timber industry fund TISS. On that day, he was involed in two concurrent mergers with five funds involved in the transactions.
But Russell, who retires on July 1 this year, is not necessarily a fan of mergers. He believes, for instance, that single-industry funds, such as Media Super, have a lot to offer to their members on top of good performance. As it happens, Media Super has been a top-quartile investment performer for nearly 10 years.
Reflecting on his 12 years as an executive in the super industry, Russell says that what it all comes down to, what everyone in profit-for members funds is, and should be, concerned about, is what is in the best interest of members. “Where I came from,” he says, “is not just about ‘members’ best interests’ being about returns and fees. They are really important… But an industry-specific fund which is actively engaged with its members can provide a better outcome.”
Engaged members will usually be more likely to take advice, whether provided cost-effectively (and without conflicts) through the fund or from elsewhere in the system. They will usually have a better result, Russell says. They will make better decisions such as with salary sacrifice, spouse contributions and various investment options.
Graeme Russell actually entered the super industry way back, having joined the board of JUST Super in 1989, before the fund merged with Print Super. Before his time in the sun, JUST Super was possibly the first merger participant in the then-nascent industry when it merged with the deliciously named actors and entertainers fund, JEST, arguably the only fund whose average member balance was less than those of journalists. JUST dates back to 1987.
Gerard Noonan, the current Media Super chair and a former editor of the Australian Financial Review, has a sharp sense of humour. He often says that the best merger partners for Media Super are MTAA, LegalSuper and REIA. They would bring together journalists, car salesmen, lawyers and real estate agents: the most distrusted professions in society. He is joking, of course. Journalists are, or should be, the most trusted.
Media Super was the only non-journalist-specific organisation invited to join the ‘Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom’. The fund puts back into its industry, as other single-industry funds, such as Cbus do. At Media Super, there is a well-performing film production fund, for instance. And there is a tribute to the ‘Balibao Five’ in East Timor. They are the five Australian journalists murdered by the Indonesians in late 1975, when Indonesia invaded what is now Timor Leste, and occupied that country for the next 25 years. The point is: single-industry funds such as Media Super care.
Russell says his main disappointment heading into his retirement is that he is not able to spend the last 10 weeks-or-so of his time at Media with his colleagues in the office – both the Melbourne and Sydney offices. “I have a terrific team,” he says, “and I will miss them.” He stood down from his full-time position on April 9 and is remaining in a consulting role for the rest of the period to his retirement. Tony Griffin, the fund’s COO, is the acting chief executive pending the usual formal search.
Russell is optimistic about the future of super though, he says. “We will really help the country through this crisis,” he says. “Industry funds have outperformed over a long time. I don’t understand what it is that some people are trying to fix… If we all stay calm, we will get through this.”