While her passion for public policy and superannuation has seen her career journey extend between Adelaide and Sydney, Super SA CEO Dascia Bennett says she is happy to be back in South Australia. By BEN POWER.
Dascia Bennett was advising the NSW Government on a restructure of the state’s timber industry when she met the late industry fund pioneer and Cbus cofounder, Mavis Robinson.
Robinson was at an event giving a speech to the timber workers on super. When she returned to Adelaide she rang Bennett—a fellow native of Adelaide—asking if Bennett wanted a job in the superannuation industry. “Superannuation?” Bennett replied. “I’m more into government advisory.”
But Robinson was insistent. “Superannuation is legislation being implemented and you’d be fantastic at it. I think you should come and work in super.”
Bennett relented and began her career in super, and apart from a stint in banking, she has stayed in the industry since. “When you work in super it really gets into your blood; it’s a very dynamic industry. It always energises me to keep working in financial services.”
When you work in super it really gets into your blood; it’s a very dynamic industry. It always energises me to keep working in financial services.
In December last year Bennett was appointed CEO of Super SA, the $28 billion super provider for South Australia’s public sector employees. She faces a significant challenge in her new role. Bennett must not only manage a highly complex fund, and bed down a new administration platform, she must also position the fund for an uncertain post-Royal Commission future, including the possible removal of the fund’s mandated status.
“Like other funds, we will face significant challenges around the Royal Commission,” she says. “That’s going to impact all funds and government legislation.”
But despite those challenges and uncertainty, Bennett says in her role as CEO her main focus will be to drive the one thing that Super SA’s members want: better—more individualised—services. “The key to success is delivering amazing member services, which is measurable through greater member advocacy. That’s always evolving.”
Bennett’s move into superannuation was perhaps even more unlikely given she began her life and early career in the country. She was born in Jamestown, a rural hub 200km north of Adelaide. Her parents moved to Clare where they had a vineyard, and she was educated at Clare High School in the famed Clare Valley wine region. “I’m definitely a country girl. They say you can take the girl out of the country, but never the country out of the girl.”
After graduating, she studied to be a teacher; but she never ended up teaching. Bennett married a broadacre wheat and sheep farmer from WA where she lived for 13 years, experiencing the ravages of droughts. “When you do that you build some resilience and have to have a bit of courage.”
But things changed dramatically after her divorce. She went back to university to study Public Policy at Flinders University as a mature aged student. “I’ve always been a public policy junky because legislation and politics really does impact everyone’s life,” she says.
Following her meeting with Mavis Robinson, Bennett’s first job in super was client service manager at the Australian Retirement Fund (now AustralianSuper). “I loved that role. I loved educating members face to face and connecting to customers. It’s great working with members where you see that light globe moment. That’s very rewarding where you can make a difference in a member’s life.”
The major turning point of her career was moving to Sydney. She says it was difficult to leave the security of Adelaide and embark on the unknown. One of Bennett’s favourite quotes—which she cites to young colleagues considering a change—is psychologist Abraham Maslow’s, “in any given moment you have two options: to step forward into growth, or step back into safety”.
In any given moment you have two options: to step forward into growth, or step back into safety.
In Sydney Bennett worked with Members Equity Bank, then moved back into superannuation, with senior roles at REST, Energy Industries Superannuation Scheme, and NGS Super, where she was head of customer strategy and experience.
Bennett says throughout her career she has been prepared to take different roles in superannuation which has allowed her to develop a broad skill set. “You have to have a bit of courage to do that,” she says. “I’ve never been afraid to change. And I’ve never been afraid to ask for help. Sometimes asking for people’s advice in the industry can be very humbling; and learning new skills can be very humbling if you take yourself out of your comfort zone.”
While she was still in Sydney, Bennett had travelled back to Adelaide to spend time with her grown children who hadn’t followed her to Sydney. So when the role of Super SA CEO emerged, it made sense. A head hunter told her to ‘put her hat in the ring’ for it. “I thought it would be an amazing opportunity; it’s an amazing fund. I feel very privileged to be given this opportunity.”
Super SA provides superannuation services and manages $28 billion for 220,000 public sector employees in the state. Super SA is a public sector fund and still a constitutionally protected fund regulated by the State Government and not APRA (though it mirrors APRA regulations).
Since joining, Bennett is developing a new three to five-year strategic plan for the fund and “future proofing the fund”.
Super SA has lots of complexities including open defined benefit and continues to have a mandated membership. There has been increasing discussion and debate about offering choice of fund.
“Super SA will quite possibly have to change compared to what it is today,” Bennett says. “Do we become limited public offer, do we continue to have mandated membership? As part of the strategic direction of the fund, ‘future proofing’ is a key initiative. A number of scenarios are currently being explored by the fund”.
Bennett says Super SA is working closely with the SA Government and key stakeholders “to develop a plan for the future which is in the best interest of members; but that also evolves the fund in the manner that would meet all changes at a national level as well”.
More broadly, Bennett says the Royal Commission and Productivity Commission report will impact all funds including Super SA, with a greater spotlight on governance.
Bennett says she has one major focus: ensuring Super SA becomes more member-centric. “Even though it’s a complex business and undergoing significant change and transformation, the key thing is to remain member centric.”
Bennett says research she conducted shortly after joining found that, despite its size, Super SA members expect the fund to deliver a far more personalised service. “That means treating them as individuals and helping them understand their options.”
A key part of improving member services is the current roll out of a new administration platform. But Bennett doesn’t rule out the need to develop strong partnerships to help deliver and improve member experience. “Funds that don’t have scale are going to have to find unique partnerships to continue to deliver the services that members want. Fortunately, for Super SA we have good scale.”
Bennett is loving being back in Adelaide, though she remains a West Coast Eagles fan from her time in WA, and a South Sydney Rabbitohs member, a legacy of her 12-year Sydney stint. And she is enjoying riding her bike around the city’s hills. “Exercise is something that gives me life balance,” she says.
While her greatest personal achievement is “having kids who have grown into “decent human beings”, one of her major personal highlights was recently riding with her hero Cadel Evans, the first Australian to win the Tour de France. “In his career he’s been ambitious and courageous, but he’s always conducted himself with a strong sense of stewardship and integrity; he’s someone you would want to emulate.”
Bennett is also excited about catching up with friends at the ASFA Conference, which starts November 14, in her home town. “I love the ASFA Conference. It’s a very policy driven conference. As a public policy junky I’m just in heaven.”
It’s also a fantastic opportunity to network with friends and colleagues in the industry. “I’m looking forward to having a nice glass of South Australian wine with them. That will probably be a Clare Valley Riesling or a Coonawarra cab sav!”
For the moment, Bennett is focusing on tactical issues, particularly bedding down Super SA’s new administration platform by Christmas and driving efficiencies. “We’re looking forward to getting through the end of the year. In 2019 we can really start to be more strategic.”
Bennett says Super SA is an “insourced” fund, with internal administration, self-insurance and an in-house call centre. The new platform will not only drive efficiencies but allow greater digital capability.
Her other immediate focus is “building exceptional capabilities in the business”. Bennett has appointed a new Head of People and is currently recruiting for a Head of Brand and Member Services. “By building good capabilities we can leverage the insourced model to deliver a far more personalised service for all our members.”
“There’s always something else to do,” she says. “This is the thing I love about this industry, it’s always changing. It’s always dynamic. Our superannuation system has really served Australia incredibly well. Even though with the Royal Commission there might be some gaps there now, I think it’s an amazing piece of public policy and continues to serve the country well.”
Photography by Bianca De Marchi.