Featured Profile: Shawn Blackmore
A fresh perspective on advice
When Shawn Blackmore joined AustralianSuper in December 2007, the fund was just getting started. The group executive of member experience and advice tells Jamie Williamson what's in store for the next decade.

In 2007, what is now Australia's largest superannuation fund was just 18 months old; the result of a merger between Superannuation Trust of Australia and Australian Retirement Fund in July 2016.

Despite its infancy, AustralianSuper was already a force to be reckoned with, safeguarding more than $28 billion on behalf of 1.3 million members.

You're always part of a process that leads to something bigger.
Joining as operations manager, Blackmore brought with him the kind of experience that most his age could only dream of. Still under 30, he had already ticked some of the financial services industry's biggest operators off his career bucket list: BT Financial Group, Perpetual and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.

Having studied a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Adelaide and graduating from FINSIA with a Diploma in Applied Finance and Investment, Blackmore kickstarted his career with administrative roles at ING and BT before becoming an analyst with the prudential regulator.

Completing analysis for a portfolio of APRA-regulated institutions, Blackmore also conducted regulatory reviews and calculated probability and impact ratings.

"It really was fantastic learning that side of the industry. It gave me a sense of awareness that I've carried throughout my career," he says.

From there, he worked as operations manager at Perpetual which gave him the necessary know-how to take on the same role at AustralianSuper.

Brought on board to assist in launching the industry fund's first account-based pension product, Blackmore says it's been a ride for both the fund and himself ever since.

And he's not wrong. In the decade since, AustralianSuper has more than quadrupled in size to house $120 billion in retirement savings on behalf of 2.2 million members.

Blackmore also maintained an upward trajectory. In 2011 he was promoted to general manager, operations before taking on his current role in 2013 at the tender age of 35.

"That's something that I'm really proud of. It's a real privilege to have people believe in you like that, especially in an organisation like AustralianSuper - that's huge," Blackmore says.

"There was a bit of an age gap between me and the existing executive team, but it was really exciting that they trusted me with bringing that younger, perhaps fresher perspective on things."

In this sense, the AustralianSuper leadership was disrupting itself and the fund has continued to do so. In the age of new, disruptor funds and products, AustralianSuper is working overtime to ensure it maintains super supremacy.

In the last 12 months, the super behemoth has steadily rolled out a raft of initiatives aimed at boosting member engagement and encouraging members to embrace financial advice.

The ability to spearhead projects such as these is exactly what attracted Blackmore to both the role and the fund in the first place.

"It's a cliche, but for me it's all about making a difference. When you're working somewhere as big as AustralianSuper, you're always part of a process that leads to something bigger. I'm really lucky in my role because I get to actually see those tangible outcomes," he says.

Blackmore describes it as humbling work, with the member interaction involved in financial advice always working to keep him grounded.

"I also find that it helps to keep you across the things that you should be doing. Members aren't afraid to tell you what they want, whether it's to do with our product, advice delivery, administration...We take it all in," he says.

That very feedback is what has led to a number of recent enhancements to AustralianSuper's advice offering.

As part of a broader strategy to transform both its digital capabilities and its advice proposition, in January the super fund began piloting an online chatbot called Ash in conjunction with the roll-out of a new goals-based advice strategy.

Though supervised and online in limited hours, within the first six weeks about 70,000 chats were held between Ash and members seeking general assistance with their super.

"The digital transformation and the reimagining of our advice offering really go hand in glove. When you have 2.2 million members, the challenge is always in designing scalable solutions that everyone can use...The results have been outstanding. The chatbot has really opened my eyes as to how machine learning actually operates in practice," Blackmore says.

The aim is that by mid-year, Ash's knowledge bank and quality of answers will have progressed to allow for the chatbot to be in use 24/7 with no need for supervision. It will also act as a triage service, minimising the number of calls to AustralianSuper's call centres.

In addition to the chatbot, Blackmore has also played a key role in the development of a messaging service for the AustralianSuper app which it plans to integrate with Ash to further assist members with general enquiries.

The move was a natural progression for the fund as messaging is now the primary way people engage with each other, he says.

"The pace of change, in particular with technology, is both exciting and challenging. when you look at the possibilities - AI, chatbots, machine learning - when it all comes together and you imagine five to 10 years down the track, it's incredible to think how we do things now could be completely different," Blackmore says.

The challenge lies in how businesses adapt, and developing suitable solutions is another aspect of the group executive's leadership role that commands much of his time.

"What does it mean for our workforce; how do we help position our staff for the journey...How do we develop those people whose jobs are potentially under threat? Are we doing enough? Are we not doing enough? These things are constantly on our minds because the pace of change is just relentless," he says.

Leading such a vital division of Australia's biggest super fund is demanding and often sees Blackmore working after hours to guarantee the job gets done.

However, with his wife of 13 years also working in superannuation, Blackmore lives by a strict curfew to ensure he doesn't miss out on valuable family time.

"We have two young children and the non-negotiable is that we are home by 5pm every day. We have dinner together and there's no technology allowed. The trade-off is that we're usually back online once the kids go to bed," he explains.

Blackmore believes it's also a good show of leadership, saying: "What we do is important but I don't expect anyone to forfeit their time with their families. It's such a great transition period - by 5pm you can be out playing basketball with the kids and when I log back on, I find I'm a lot more productive."

For Blackmore, it's simply what has to be done to ensure not only work/life balance, but also that he is doing the best job he possibly can.

"The ultimate judge of that will be the members. If we can successfully provide mass goals-based, scalable advice to 2.2 million people, that's fantastic. If I can say I had a hand in that, I'll be happy," he says

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