Mention Sir Philip Green to Tracy Blackwell and she shakes her head with a knowing smile.
“I’m not getting into that one,” says the chief executive of Pension Insurance Corporation, the £32 billion insurance company best known for taking over the 9000-strong BHS pension scheme last year.
I’ve just asked if she thinks Green should have kept his knighthood after the scandal but the US-born former Goldman Sachs exec, who rose from humble origins to become one of the industry’s most powerful women, won’t take the bait.
“No, no, no,” she laughs, waving away the question.
Ever since the BHS saga, barrels of ink have been splurged highlighting the crisis of underfunded final-salary schemes such as BHS and how business is shirking its responsibilities.
In March, the Pensions Regulator put out its toughest statement yet, telling companies to halt dividends if they can’t afford contributions to plug pension funding gaps.
That was after figures showed £66 billion was paid to shareholders versus £8.7 billion to pension funds last year.
Blackwell, 51, who’s led PIC for four years, has had a front-row seat for the ensuing crackdown and has become something of a poster child for calls to hold employers to their words.
“You cannot let employers walk away from their obligations,” she says when we meet at the company’s office opposite the Bank of England. “If you had given Green an opportunity to [offload the pensions] for less money, of course he would have taken it. It was the pressure of the regulators to make companies fulfil their obligations. That’s the crucial bit.”
Blackwell’s outfit might not have the same brand recognition as rivals Legal & General and Aviva, but in the glacial world of final-salary pensions it’s a big deal.
The 190-strong group, owned by private equity and sovereign wealth funds, works with companies who want to get shot of their expensive final-salary schemes, taking on the responsibility to pay pensioners in return for a premium.
These deals, known as pension buyouts, helped PIC double new premiums to £7 billion last year and make £477 million profit, boosting the number of pensioners it pays to 200,000, including former workers at Cadbury and Boots. Last year saw a record £20 billion in pension schemes shovelled over to insurers.
Rising interest rates and lower life expectancy mean this year will be even bigger but Blackwell is keener to talk about a big shake-up in the world of pension buyouts.
Over the past few months, she’s been steadily raising the alarm over plans to loosen rules on the type of companies who can take over final-salary pension schemes.
A new breed of for-profit investment vehicles, dubbed pension superfunds, is set to launch, offering a cheaper route for companies to offload their schemes.
But they will be more loosely regulated than insurers such as PIC, and Blackwell fears if they go wrong, the whole industry will be tarred with the same brush.
“You cannot have for-profit entities in a very lightly regulated environment. We’ve seen this movie before, it doesn’t go well,” she says with a nod to the financial crisis.
“I do worry about the reputational backlash for us. If you’re in one of these pension funds and it does hit trouble, are people going to understand it’s not an insurance company? I don’t think so.”
Pensions have a reputation for being complicated and slightly, well, boring, so how does Blackwell — who also sits on the board of the Elton John Aids Foundation — explain to strangers what she does?
“Oh god,” she says, slightly taken aback by the question. “I always kind of say I run an insurance company involved in pensions… and then their eyes glaze over,” she laughs. “It’s a complicated industry to understand and we are at the complicated end of complicated.”
She made her name at Goldman Sachs’ Fleet Street office in the Nineties thanks to her nous for complex derivatives, then a new-fangled product.
An ex-colleague who worked with Blackwell after Goldman describes her as “bright and capable” but also “pretty political,” a trait most ex-Goldmanites pick up after navigating the internal powerplays at the Vampire Squid.
Indeed, while she may have got to Goldman, she’s anything but Ivy League old money. “Nothing about me is conventional,” she admits. “I didn’t take the traditional route into anything.”
Today she lives in the Norfolk countryside with her 12-year-old son and husband James, part of the famous Blackwell family publishing empire: but she grew up in a poor Midwestern rust-belt township in Illinois called Rockville, the only child of a teenage mother who had her when she was 18.
Her mother, who worked in advertising sales, moved into a better area to get Blackwell into a better school.
“Everybody else was middle class and I was trying to keep up,” she says.
Although she now earns at least £1 million a year, she enrolled at the home state’s University of Illinois’ rural Urbana-Champaign college to get cheaper tuition.
She then worked and worked to fund her studies, including a part-time job as a magician’s assistant: “It was crazy, it was actually quite brilliant.”
Years later, senior women are still rare in financial services but at PIC around 40% of its managers are female.
“We are very caring about our employees. It’s noticeable when I go and talk to people in other companies they don’t have the same kind of experience.”
She went back to Rockville for the first time in 25 years last year but says she no longer feels American.
She’s even given up her US passport, although she thinks her home country has a healthier attitude to people making money, compared with the build-’em-up, knock-’em-down Brit culture.
She says: “You hear about all these billionaires moving offshore but if you have a culture where people get lionised until they are brought down, what do you expect to happen?”
On that point, Sir Philip might even agree with the woman who took over his pension fund.