Your pension, your future
Love your future. Shell Pension.
Your pension, your future
Love your future. Shell Pension.

November 2020

Interview with Janneke Abels

Overcome the crisis and emerge even stronger.

It was an exceptional year. At the end of 2019, the coronavirus broke out and at the beginning of 2020, the Netherlands had to deal with a crisis situation. How did the board of SSPF deal with the negative consequences of the Covid-19 crisis? Janneke Abels, VP Group Planning and Appraisal at Shell and board member of SSPF, speaking.

In the spring of 2020, it became clear that the Netherlands had also been hit hard by the coronavirus. ICUs were overflowing, schools were closing and companies were shutting down. All in all, not the best news for a pension fund. Did you have any ready-made scenarios for such a crisis?

“We definitely did. We were well prepared to act quickly and in a structured way. As it happens, things had been going really well in the market for a long time, and we had already anticipated: There comes a moment that something goes awry or is going to happen. Therefore we held a crisis exercise in July 2019 and discussed a number of scenarios  together. We then mapped out to what extent we would be prepared for a (financial) crisis and who or what we would need to act. In fact, a script was already in place and that worked really well.  But even though the scenarios were ready, we had not seen this large-scale crisis coming.

What does this mean for your investment strategy?

“This may sound odd, but actually not that much. We have a diverse portfolio; one in which we spread risks. This diversity enables us to absorb shocks effectively. The difficult thing about this crisis was that everything came crashing down. Of course, we could have made a choice to change our strategy, but the market was quite unstable. Moreover, we did not have an immediate solution: the options we had for short-term results, for example to limit the impact of further falls, would have the opposite effect in the long run and would then limit the fund's ability to recover. We therefore opted to keep a watchful eye on the markets, preserve our portfolio, and stick to the long-term strategy. In other words, it was not a good year, but our strategy proved to be sound enough to get through the year unscathed.”

From an organisational point of view, surey lots of things needed to be done. How did you go about it?

“Gradually, it became clear that we were caught up in a scenario that would not blow over quickly and the impact of which would be considerable. At the beginning of March we therefore decided that we would officially label this as a crisis and started our crisis procedure. In this procedure, we had already determined who and what was needed and how we would communicate internally and with the participants. We were glad that we already had a proper blueprint and started with weekly meetings. Bit by bit, we learned more and we continued to zoom in on possible outcomes based on various scenarios. We also received input and support from Shell Asset Management Company B.V. (SAMCo, the organisation which makes the investments), SPN and our external advisor (Willis Towers Watson)."

"We have a diversified portfolio. This diversity enables us to absorb shocks effectively"

Were there any bumps in the road that you hadn't anticipated?

“We did not expect the fickleness of the market. Although you do know that the market sometimes does surprising things. Thanks to our careful preparation, cooperation with the executive parties went very smoothly. SAMCo, for instance, had everyone working from home beforehand, just to practise. One of the concerns being whether the system could cope with working from home.

How did you tackle internal communication?

“Providing transparency and clarity were key issues. Our Chief of Staff in this crisis, the general manager of SPN, Kenan Yildirim, communicated at least weekly with the various parties (the Accountability Body, the sponsor, DNB, Achmea, the Supervisory Board) and after each crisis meeting he immediately prepared a summary which he sent to the entire board. This way, everyone was well and promptly informed about the crisis and the pressure was taken off the organisation.

What did SSPF do to keep participants informed?

“With a Q&A page on our website, we tried to quickly inform people about what was going on. Of course, we did not have answers to all the questions, but the Q&A did help participants to gain more insight in the consequences of the crisis."

What is the status of our pensions?

“Although our fund did take a hit, we handled things well. The interest rate remains relatively low and this has implications for our coverage ratio: it is below the level we would like.But our investment portfolio has bounced back, it returned to the level it was before the crisis."

Which aspect of crisis management are you most proud of?

“The way we were dealing with things! Within the board there was room for reflection and open discussion. That builds trust. The people around us felt well informed. SPN did a very good job. How rapidly and effectively they reacted, keeping so many people informed at the same time, hats off to them. We were also happy with the cooperation with our outsourcers, the way in which SAMCo and Achmea Pension Services, for instance, handled things. They were quick to respond and we kept communicating with each other, so the service to our participant could continue. That was not always easy, with sick family members and working from home - sometimes with children being there as well."

Do you think you will come out of this more powerful as a board?

“Yes, we do. It has shown us that it also works to have a number of representatives from the board who discuss certain topics and then share them with the other board members. Other members of the board. We received the trust of the board and other stakeholders. That is a great thing. We now realise: together we are strong!"

About Janneke Abels

As VP Group Planning and Appraisal at Shell since 2017, Janneke Abels has been leading a team at the head office. They take care of the financial planning for the Shell Group. As vice-chair of the investment committee, Janneke Abels has been closely involved in crisis management and, together with Martijn Minderhoud, acts as the main contact for SSPF's ESG policy. Janneke Abels is married and the mother of two sons aged 8 and 10.