At a time when Asia Pacific’s pension funds need to modernise, expand and improve, having high calibre professionals in key roles will be vitally important. 

For that reason, AsianInvestor has consulted leading pension fund experts, consultants, custodians and fund managers to put together a list of 20 pension executives who stand out in their field. The list which is being rolled out online over the next two weeks, is not ranked. Nor is it intended to be exhaustive. But hopefully it highlights why these particular executives in the region have so impressed their peers, business partners and colleagues.

We start today with executives from Korea and Australia.

CHO IN-SIK

Head of global public markets, National Pension Service Investment Management, South Korea

NPS IM has been through some difficult times of late. In early 2016 its chief executive and chief investment officer publicly squabbled; by the year’s end its chairman had been arrested over corruption charges involving NPS voting decisions over two Samsung Group divisions.

Senior departures followed, including that of CIO Kang Myoun-Wook last July. These were exacerbated by NPS IM’s move to Jeonju, a town situated two-and-a-half hours outside of Seoul.

Yet over the past seven months NPS IM has experienced a period of relative calm, avoiding other major departures and continuing a string of investment mandates. Observers credit one man: acting CIO Cho In-Sik.

“Dr Cho has personally been involved with mandates and ensuring the pension fund operates normally,” said the head of Asia fixed income at a global asset manager. “He’s helped ensured stability after a very tough time.”

It’s no easy job to oversee the assets of the world’s third-largest pension fund. Cho, who was formerly global public market head, admitted to AsianInvestor that NPS IM faces “various demands from our stakeholders” over its investing targets, risk asset holdings and domestic investments.

Plus, there is a common public misunderstanding that the fund should support public equity markets in a downturn. It can be hard to get government approvals for investing resources too, in part because the fund doesn’t pay as much as private sector jobs.

But while the pension fund can’t shift investment plans on a dime or compete with private sector wages, Cho says its investment team is high calibre, and relatively young: “we believe youth and passion are what drives our engines”.

He is especially focused on risk management. He noted that NPS IM has likely “reached its upper limits” on domestic stock investments, and as it adds more overseas assets it will have to account for the currency mismatch this creates between its liabilities and assets.

Plus Cho is looking out for new investing ideas. “We are passionate about endorsing a creative destruction of current and existing investment processes so that we can … provide a globally competitive investment programme,” he said.

PETER CURTIS

Head of investment operations, AustralianSuper, Australia

For a decade Australia’s largest superannuation fund has aggressively scaled up via mergers. AustralianSuper absorbed Westscheme in 2011, then merged with AGEST and AustQ in 2013. Plus it has brought investing decisions in house, and wants to raise internally managed assets from 30% to 50% by 2023.

Chief executive officer Ian Silk and chief investment officer Mark Delaney take plaudits for this (both men could have been included in this list). 

But custodians and service providers say head of investment operations Peter Curtis has been less heralded, yet just as integral.

Curtis has ensured AustralianSuper’s incorporation of the assets and investment teams of other super funds didn’t snarl its overall workings.

He’s also overseen the fund’s investment in-housing. Both tasks helped the fund raise assets by 20% to A$120 billion ($94.33 billion) as of June 2017.

“AustralianSuper is going through a huge transformation, creating solutions data warehouses to improve optimisation at the same time as bringing asset management in-house,” said a regional head at an international custodian.

“They’re spending on tech and looking to push the requirements for data gathering; challenging the traditional custodian view. Peter’s responsible for all of this.”

Largely because of Curtis, AustralianSuper said it saved A$100 million by internalising its investing in 2017. It aims to cut A$300 million more over the next five years.