The rise and rise of self-managed super funds

CPA Australia’s Future Thinkers series tells the remarkable stories of members shifting the dial in business, the community and society. To investigate the growth of self-managed super funds, Peter Johnson FCPA discusses the notion of control in a financial landscape with varying market performance.

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Perhaps atypically for an accountant, Peter Johnson began his career at The Royal Military College – Duntroon.

“But I’d always wanted to be an accountant,” he says.

So in 1990 he left the army to study full time. Around the same time, he and his wife started up their own company, Atlas Shelf Companies.

“It was sold off in 1999 and that’s when I commenced in practice,” he says.

“As part of that business that I owned, we were servicing accountants. And when the superannuation laws were changed and the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (SIS Act) came in, a lot of accountants needed support, and I decided that I would specialise in self-managed superannuation.”

In 2013, Peter says he became the first CPA to obtain the new limited Australian financial services license.

“Over the next few years, I noticed accountants didn’t want to get their own license, they wanted to be authorised under someone else. So, in 2015, I decided to open my license up to other accountants. That business was called the SMSF Expert, and I was really just focusing on self-managed super funds by now and primarily in providing services to other accountants.”

That in turn grew to about 80 authorised advisors around Australia.

“I recently sold that business to the Eastern Investments Group. And now, I’m just starting on an online education platform for accountants for SMSF training.”

Are self-managed super funds becoming more popular?

“I think that the popularity of SMSFs has been fairly constant in terms of its growth since they brought in the new superannuation laws back in 1994. But because it’s been growing steadily – there might have been a hundred thousand of them back in 1994, now there’s a million people – that’s one in twenty who are a member of a SMSF. Which is quite substantial when you think about all the demographics who probably don’t have super. It could be as high as ten to fifteen percent of all working people.”

What makes SMSFs so popular?

“One word: control. What happens is, when the stock market’s going poorly, people’s superannuation doesn’t have a good return, because most super in Australia – or a large proportion of it – is invested in equities. So, when stock markets are going down, people’s superannuation is going down, and they blame the superannuation manager rather than market conditions.

“When the markets are performing well, they think ‘I’m with a good manager’. So, they don’t really realise their manager is just giving them a very standard investment portfolio and therefore their super’s performance will relate to the stock market’s performance. They just think ‘My manager can’t make money’. And so, they just want to do it themselves.”

Has being a CPA helped your career?

“Yes. I remember when I first started out as a financial planner in 2000. I was in a planning magazine, and in my advertisements, I had the CPA logo, and almost every single person who contacted me said that one of the reasons they contacted me was because I was a CPA.

“It was the trust of the brand that got people to come to me. The brand itself is strong.”

Has being an FCPA helped you manage your own practice?

“Definitely, because there are so many resources they give you. I teach the courses that accountants do to become practising accountants and there’s a ton of learning involved just in that course.

“If you weren’t a CPA, but you went out on your own just as a tax agent without being a member of a professional body, no one would give you that assistance, you’d be on your own. Plus, the members of the public can be more confident in CPAs because we have a quality assurance program where we get audited by our peers on a regular basis.”

Do you like mentoring accountants?

“I love it. Primarily, that’s what I do now. I know accountants are supposed to be task-focused introverts, but I’m a people-focused extrovert. Which means I was terrible at the early stages of accounting where you’re just muddling through bank-statement entries, but once I got to the point of people sitting in front of me all day every day, I loved it.”

Where do you see the future of accounting?

“Accountants have got to move away from just doing accounting work and move towards consulting with people,” he says. “A lot of accountants do financial planning now, there’s a big push in the profession for business consulting, to take on a growth-assistance role with businesses. So, they’re really using their brain and giving something back to the client.

“The accountant of tomorrow will spend more time looking into the future than into the past. Twenty years ago, all we did was tell you what happened last year. Now, we’re going to tell you what should happen next year.”

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