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Profile: Retirement Commissioner Diana Crossan

Sue Allen meets the new Retirement Commissioner Dianna Crossan and finds out she is not the type of person that one would necessarily expect in this role.

Tuesday, March 18th 2003, 6:26AM

by Sue Allen

What pops into your head when you think about saving for your retirement? Grey-haired men in grey suits talking about sensible investments? Well, try thinking blonde hair, boogie boarding and a self-professed lack of interest in money.

Sounds an unlikely description for the newly-appointed Retirement Commissioner, but Diana Crossan is not necessarily what one would expect from the person in charge of getting New Zealanders to start saving.

But, in some ways, she thinks it might be just these qualities which make her more in touch with the average Kiwi.

"All I’m saying is that I am not that interested in money. All I want is to have enough and to save and I think that makes me a lot like the people we are trying to reach."

Unlike the average Kiwi, however, she also has a background in senior management, policy advice, strategic thinking and in insurance, savings and investment.

All a long way from the girl who grew up in Southland and, after reading a book about English prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, wanted to be a social worker. In fact, she became a probation officer.

"I thought I would be a probation officer for the rest of my life. It was a fantastic place to get a range of skills and to develop the ability to switch from one thing to another very quickly.

After that, there were senior management and policy roles at the Ministry of Education, Department of Justice and as part of the project development team responsible for restructuring the country’s electricity providers from a nationalised industry to state-owned enterprise.

She has also had a life-long commitment to voluntary work and still sits on a number of boards, as well as working part time with an organisation helping people save for their children’s education.

However, her trump card in taking on the role as Retirement Commissioner must be the experience she gained at financial services company, AMP – something which almost did not happen.

"When I first went in to AMP, I thought what the hell am I doing this for? It had the slowest lift in Wellington at that time, and when I got out on the fifth floor and walked through a rabbit warren of bureaucracy, I wondered what I had let myself in for. But the people were great and [AMP] was on a real roll, a real change was going on and it was an interesting challenge."

She says her time working on AMP’s business strategy gave her an understanding of the industry and on how to connect with customers.

"Someone with an in-depth technical knowledge of the industry can help in part of the role [as Retirement Commissioner], but that doesn’t necessarily help when you are talking education or major campaigns.

Education is going to be important if more New Zealanders are going to be encouraged to start saving.

On the age-old debate about government tax incentives to boost savings and encourage more companies to offer superannuation schemes, Crossan will not be drawn too far.

"If you look at government policy over all issues they fit; they give no tax incentives for anything…so I don’t see it as a problem or not a problem for retirement because it the same for other areas, for example, childcare."

What she will say is that although instinctively tax breaks might sound like a good thing, she wants to see more research from overseas on how tax incentives work in practice.

Having just started, Crossan is understandably guarded about putting her opinions out there, but she says one key area she will be looking at is making better inroads into schools and tertiary institutions.

For children from families where financial management is not part of everyday life, she thinks it is just as important a part of education as sport, art or music.

As part of a move to hit a younger audience, the Commission is also talking about re-focusing its message.

"One concept we are already talking about is saving for life events rather than just talking about retirement. It’s not just about saving for when you put your slippers on and play bowls, it is about saving for major events along the way and one of those, a big one, is retirement."

She says the issue of how women, Maori, Pacific Island and other ethnic groups save and plan for retirement are also areas that will be looked at more closely in future.

And like all good captains of industry, Crossan says networking and partnerships are going to play a key part in her job.

"One of the things I have found in every job I’ve had is that people are not necessarily in touch with other people of a like mind in the industry. I think I can wander into a lot of head offices and others involved in this and put them together as partners – the independence of my role allows that."

But what about that name - the Retirement Commissioner? Well, she says it’s likely to stay, for now.

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