NGS Super CEO looks beyond the industry’s ‘merger fever’

15 June 2023
| By Rhea Nath |
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In an interview with Super Review, Natalie Previtera shares her plans for growth as the super fund’s new chief executive and outlines the aftermath of the cyber attack faced by NGS Super earlier this year.

Previtera had been acting CEO at NGS Super for nine months and was permanently appointed to the role in June 2023 with unanimous board support.

Prior to joining the super fund in 2019, she had served as a senior manager, trustee governance at AMP for four years and worked at Perpetual for around three years, most recently as senior legal counsel.

“The majority of my career was spent in retail funds, but I’ve always had an interest in industry funds. For many years, it was segregated, so there was this curiosity around industry funds, their connection to members, and putting members first,” Previtera said. 

She said it was an “honour” to be appointed CEO and considered it the pinnacle of her career. 

Looking ahead, Previtera’s plans for the $13 billion super fund are focused on getting the “right type of growth”.

Currently, while it is open to everyone, NGS Super is the leading industry super fund for those in the independent education and community sectors.

Part of its growth plan included the appointment of a chief growth officer, former AIST executive Jo Klingberg, in April. 

“Growth is really important for us, as it is for all funds, but I think the key thing is that it’s not growth for growth’s sake. We don’t want to be everything to everyone,” Previtera told Super Review. 

“My focus is getting the right type of growth at NGS, [making sure] that the team is empowered, and we’ve got the right resources in the right places to serve our members and draw new members in.”

It was not lost on the CEO that the superannuation industry had been grasped by “merger fever” in the last few years. In 2022 alone, there had been more than 10 mergers and acquisitions, such as Cbus Super and Media Super (with Cbus recently completing a merger with EISS Super in May 2023); Hostplus and Statewide Super; CareSuper and Spirit Super; and QSuper and Sunsuper (now known as Australian Retirement Trust). 

This was encouraged by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) that was keen for smaller funds to merge with larger ones to achieve scale.

“The industry has been grasped by merger fever and I don’t blame anybody for thinking that way because it probably makes sense for a lot of funds to think about mergers. But for NGS, we know what we do really well and that’s personalised advice for our members and understanding their needs from the beginning of their careers until they head into retirement and beyond,” Previtera said.

“Small and medium funds have a role to play in maintaining that intimacy, and the bigger you get, the more challenges you have with staying close to your members and being able to commit to personal service. 

“There are a number of hygiene factors all funds need to get right — fees, investment performance, and the like — but the way you deliver and package those is really important as well.”

According to the executive, NGS Super is “punching above its weight” and holds no concerns from a performance test perspective as a small- to medium-sized fund. 

As at 30 June 2022, NGS Super’s MySuper investment option had passed both the APRA performance test and the MySuper Heatmap published in December 2022.

Net returns were higher than the median MySuper option over one and five years and slightly lower than the median MySuper option over three years.

With the Choice investment option, over half of the fund’s accumulation and transition to retirement investment options had met or exceeded median performance for the relevant SuperRatings index over one, three, and five-year periods ended 30 June 2022.

Manoeuvring a cyber attack

On 17 March, the fund fell victim to a cyber attack after a hacker gained access to some of its systems for a short period of time. Limited data was taken, however, no savings of its around 115,000 members were affected.

“I was the chief risk officer at NGS Super prior to becoming acting chief executive, and if anyone were to ask me the risk that kept me up at night, it would be a cyber attack,” Previtera told Super Review.

“In this day and age, it was a matter of when, unfortunately, and not if.”

She elaborated that member savings had remained secure at all times as, from a custodian perspective, it was segregated from the fund’s internal data. 

“The initial reaction was to lock it down, protect, and restore. When we did restore, we made sure everything’s fortified. As you can probably appreciate, this is always evolving and you want to make sure you’re ahead of the risk,” she said.

She explained the fund received excellent cyber assistance from day one of the process, which began by locking down the network to put further protections and monitoring software on its internal systems.

Regarding the fund’s decision to publicly announce the cyber attack, the CEO said transparency was key.

“We wanted to help members, and if that meant publicly disclosing this on the website, then absolutely, because we could get to members sooner or in a different way if they weren’t opening their emails or checking correspondence from us. It was a no-brainer for us to say ‘we’re going to be transparent and we’re willing to let members know publicly’,” she said.

“Our size was a real strength in this. We were able to work really hard in those first few days to determine exactly what was taken and arm members with the right information. We wrote to all members, irrespective of whether they had been impacted, and followed up with more tailored correspondence. 

“As a third step, for as many members as we could, we had our team making proactive phone calls. That’s down to the personalised service and intimacy we have with our members. In that situation, we leaned into our strengths.”

Since the cyber attack, she said NGS Super had not witnessed any significant change in member numbers.

Green light for super fund advice

In his recent announcement regarding the Quality of Advice Review (QAR), Minister for Financial Services, Stephen Jones, confirmed the government would adopt 14 of the 22 recommendations in Michelle Levy’s report. 

The recommendations were broken down into three streams — removing regulatory red tape that adds to the cost of advice without benefiting consumers; expanding access to retirement income advice; and exploring new channels to advice.

In terms of superannuation, restrictions on collective charging would be amended to allow super funds to provide more retirement advice and information to their members. 

The government would also work with industry to consider adopting, and tailoring as needed, QAR recommendations 1–4 (around personal advice, general advice, relevant providers, and good advice duty), the remaining parts of recommendation 5 (statutory best interests duty), and recommendations 12.1 and 12.2 (on design and distribution obligations) to allow super funds to provide advice.

Additionally, superannuation trustees would be provided with legal clarity around current practices for the payment of adviser service fees and accept in principle recommendation 7 around deduction of adviser fees from super.

Previtera said: “We are very supportive of the QAR’s recommendations. It means quite a number of changes for us and the industry of how we operate, but advice is the key to changing outcomes for our members.

“We’ve got a higher proportion of female membership, and they often shy away from advice because it’s complicated and perceived to be expensive, but these changes turn that on its head.” 

The fund has a team of some seven advisers at present and the number is likely to increase as super funds ramp up delivery of intra-fund advice. 

“We’ve got our own internal advice team, we’re committed to maintaining that, and trying to reach as many members as possible in terms of getting and seeking advice. These QAR reforms will really support that outcome,” she said. 

“We’ll look closely at the announcement to make sure we’ve got everything ticked off, but it’s a very good day for the industry.” 

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