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Up close with: Michelle Cracknell

Jennifer Hill, 21 August 2019

A strong desire to help people has driven Michelle Cracknell’s career. The former CEO of The Pensions Advisory Service talks about the path she has travelled and her next step

Michelle Cracknell

Growing up in a military family, Michelle Cracknell had a peripatetic childhood, living everywhere from Norway to Waddington.

She attended Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school with a charitable foundation, from age 10 and despite the obvious drawbacks – “I missed out on having a home life and close relationship with my parents” – she credits the school with her successful academic achievements and desire to “give back”.

“It was an egalitarian school – a lot of people didn’t pay fees; they had benefactors,” she said. “The belief that everyone should have the same opportunities in life is something that I’ve carried with me.

“I have been lucky to earn a good living in financial services, but I also know that I can make £1 into £1.20 because of my knowledge whereas most people struggle to make £1 worth £1,” she said. “How do we help people make the most of their money so that they can make the most of their lives?”

She has a strong sense of purpose, inherited from her parents, that work is important and fun. “I started earning as a babysitter at age 14 – what’s not to like about sitting in someone’s house, choosing what to watch on TV and getting paid? I also loved being a waitress in the US when I was a student – the harder I worked, the bigger the tips.”

Her parents also instilled in her a fierce independence and self-belief: “I would get the boat train from Harwich to Mönchengladbach in Germany by myself with a £5 note that my father stapled to the back of my passport. Whatever happened, he told me it would get me out of trouble!”

Best decision

Michelle left Imperial College London with a civil engineering degree and was set to join her parents in the US, but their decision to return to the UK saw her take a temporary job with General Accident at Hyde Park Corner.

Enjoying the job, she got a permanent role as a trainee broker consultant with Friends Provident then made her “best decision ever” to join IFA firm Advisory & Brokerage Services where she trained as an actuary, became a shareholder and ultimately pensions director over a 16-year period.

It took her eight years to qualify as an actuary, at age 33, working full-time and studying every Saturday morning.

“The maths part of the qualification took six years, but I rattled through the second section of the exams that require application of the knowledge because I was already dealing with clients.

“I qualified one Friday in June 1997. On the Saturday morning I took my books downstairs and sat down to study as I had done for the previous eight years; it was such a big part of my routine.”

In 2002, Advisory & Brokerage Services was bought by Aegon UK and Michelle went from being an owner manager to working for a global player. She became employee benefits director then business development director for Origen, formed from Aegon’s acquisition of five IFA practices.

“I have huge thanks for Otto Thoresen [chief executive of Aegon from 2005 to 2011] who sent me on a number of senior management courses, which was a first for me, and gave me the opportunity to work abroad – for Aegon Netherlands, Aegon China and Aegon US,” said Michelle, who was part of the board that she says moved Origen from a loss position in 2004 and 2005 to a profit of £1.46 million in 2006.

Three years at Skandia and three years as a consultant followed, during which she learned how to apply her knowledge to other areas – platforms at Skandia and distribution at Bluerock Consulting.

Head honcho

One thing she was yet to do was be the boss. When approached about the post of chief executive of The Pensions Advisory Service (TPAS) she admits she was initially a little ambivalent. “However, the more I read about what it did, the more I wanted the job," she said. "It was probably the interview that I was most nervous about because I so wanted the job.”

She took up the role in October 2013, a year and a half prior to the advent of pension freedoms when “pensions went from sleepy hollow to front page news”.

During her five-year tenure, the number of people helped by the service grew from 70,000 to 230,000 customers per year and the organisation’s workforce more than doubled from 45 to 100.

The way in which the service was delivered also expanded – from telephone to web chat, appointments and collaborative working with other industry players. “We spent a lot of time speaking at adviser conferences and to providers,” she said. “After all, we were paid for through the pension levy and wanted to share with them the insights we had from talking to customers in order to make pensions a better place.”

Michelle left TPAS in December 2018 just ahead of its merger with Pension Wise and The Money Advice Service to form the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) on 1 January 2019.

“I would have loved to have taken on the Money and Pensions Service, but it wasn’t to be,” said Michelle. “I’m fully supportive of MaPS as there needs to be an independent public service that helps people get the most of their money.”

She’s still thinking about her next step: “TPAS is a hard act to follow.” In the meantime, she holds a couple of non-executive positions and is considering using some of the tax-free cash from her pension – she will shortly turn 55 – to develop an application to prevent cognitive decline.

“Our aging society is one of the things that concerns me the most. If you’re not a natural crossword or Sudoku person, you need to do something else to exercise your brain.”

Key milestones

Michelle feels financial services could benefit from looking more through the lens of the consumer and offering help at key milestones – when people marry, have a child, buy a house or divorce.

She has two sons, aged 18 and 20, and would have welcomed a conversation about protection when she returned from maternity leave.

“For the first time in my life I worried about my own mortality,” she said. “We’re so scared about using the information we have on people, but if you buy something from Amazon, you expect them to tell you what else you might like. We call ourselves a ‘retail’ financial services sector, but we don’t act like the retailers.

“What other sector has a regulator that tells its participants to treat customers fairly? Most other consumer-facing sectors do so because that’s how they become the most profitable.”

While a lot of the dialogue around planning for retirement centres on the need for people to save more, Michelle thinks helping people be smarter with the money they have got could go a long way to help.

She would also like to see less polarisation – “advice versus guidance, whole of market versus restricted, versus this versus that” – and greater flexibility in how consumers access financial services.

“We need to be realistic about where people are today in managing their money and help to take them on a journey,” she said. “With guidance, if you tell someone everything they need to do, they probably won’t do anything. If we give a few key things that they should address, there is much greater chance that they will do something and come back for more.”

Quick-fire Q&A

Strictly business, I’m most excited about... The new app that I’m building

The best piece of business advice I’ve ever received is... If you are 80% certain, act – indecisiveness is the killer of many businesses

And the worst... None, all advice is helpful even if you decide not to follow it

My first pay packet was... About £1,200 per annum as an office assistant in my gap year

I’d tell my teenage self... Hard work pays, never take anyone for granted and life is long so enjoy it

My biggest extravagance is... Chanel perfume

Favourite singer/band... Eddie Vedder/Pearl Jam

Favourite drink... Diet Coke

The thing or person who makes me laugh is... Jack Whitehall

I keep fit by... Going to the gym and cycling to the station

The historical or fictional character I most identify with is... Miss Moneypenny

If I had £1m to spend I would... Invest it and use the proceeds to give to the causes that matter the most to me

The charity closest to my heart is... Singing Gorilla Projects [a Ugandan education, health and water charity]

If I was Chancellor for the day I would... Stop child allowance and use the funds to set up savings clubs in every school (and stop hospital car parking charges!)

The financial advice sector today is… Changing