Sally Bridgeland

Bridgeland is Chief Executive of BP’s giant pension scheme. The willowy ex-consultant shared her thoughts with ai5000 in-house about management, hedge funds, and the demerits of pension buyouts.


Where did I start? I was at Hewitt for 20-plus years before coming to BP. As a consultant, I was a generalist; here, I am a relative specialist. The role of the trustee—a role I love—is a mix of understanding benefits, funding, and investment risks. Unlike the majority of British pension schemes, we mostly manage our funds internally. There is a certain magic to in-house management. There are two sides to our structure: operations and investments. As the CEO, I need to speak the language of both. The investment managers are deep, deep specialists. The biggest difference between internal and external investment management is the business model. Investment managers, by nature, need to be contrarian. To do this successfully, it is best that they have stability. It’s hard to have stability externally; internally, the hiring and firing process is much more evolutionary. If you look at external managers, the business model is about assets under management, and not losing clients. As with many pension funds, more important than performing well is simply not performing badly, and the business relationships are sticky, and usually the result of emotion supported by facts sought after the fact. So, we like the internal model. As the head of investment management, I have to make sure they aren’t making silly decisions based on overconfidence or depression. There has to be confidence—it’s a natural human emotion that evolved with us—but not too much. Ten percent of our investments are in private equity. We’re not expecting to need that money now. This is an area where pensions can and should profit. We use a mix of external and internal managers here; we are learning how they do it, and then we do it internally. We don’t invest in hedge funds as a policy; our sponsor can afford to take risks, but we would rather take equity risks than hedge fund risks—and we don’t want to pay the fees. There are bargains to be had, but hedge funds aren’t one of them. Yes, there are problems with defined benefit plans: the rules allowing vesting earlier, after even only a year or two; the scheme becoming a bargaining chip. The scale of the benefits went to such levels, but it wasn’t meant to be like that; that wasn’t the game—it was meant to be a long-service award. As a result, our biggest risk isn’t investment risk; it’s covenant risk, it’s whether BP can continue to support us. BP took a contribution holiday, yes. We’re playing a long game; it was the right decision. Our funding status is still positive. Not as positive as it was, but we’re still above water. Would we consider a pension buyout? Not now. We might in some circumstances, say, if we were taken over by a foreign company, but our employees wouldn’t like it—they expect their pension to come, in the end, from BP.

aiCIO Editorial Staff