Al Rush has had an eclectic career to say the least, but that’s not the most interesting thing about him.
Following over 20 years in the Royal Air Force Regiment, and a stint in publishing that included the launch of a successful car magazine, it is in the last two years that Al has marked himself out in the advice profession as someone hell bent on making a positive difference, both for advisers and the wider public.
His work on launching The Great Pension Debate events, as well as his instrumental role in putting right the wrongs related to steelworkers given poor advice to transfer out of their pension, has helped push the issue of defined benefit (DB) transfers into the spotlight. As a consequence, Al too has found himself in the spotlight - uncomfortably sharing the limelight alongside his cause.
A military education
Early on in our conversation, I am politely but firmly ticked off for referring to Al being part of the Royal Air Force, as opposed to the Royal Air Force Regiment.
For the uninitiated, the Royal Air Force Regiment is a specialist corps which does the ‘soldiering’ for the RAF, including the defence of airfields and recovering downed pilots. As Al explains: “The Royal Air Force Regiment is to the Royal Air Force what the Royal Marines are to the Royal Navy. We are the infantry, the army for the Royal Air Force. We consider ourselves to be different.”
Al’s story starts when, at the time of the Falklands War, he was a 17-year-old looking to join the Royal Marines. The basic entry exam was whether a would-be recruit could do 15 chin-ups on a metal bar in the local careers office in Swansea.
Al tried and failed. He came back and passed two months later, only to be told the Royal Marines were full. On hearing this Al said he would join the army, but was encouraged to join the Royal Air Force Regiment instead.
It was a way of life that suited him to a tee. His first posting was at RAF Greenham Common as part of an American unit looking after cruise missiles. He ended up staying in the Royal Air Force Regiment for just shy of 22 years.
He says: “It was so hard, but it was never work. I didn’t know for months what I was getting paid. I didn’t have a clue, and I didn’t care because I was doing so much fantastic stuff with some great people.”
This lifestyle came to an abrupt halt when Al was injured while on active service. The personal cost was huge: not only did Al lose the role that meant so much to him, but his injuries led to post-traumatic stress disorder and contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. He spent five years in rehab, and describes it as losing five years of his life.
"I burst into tears after being discharged. Not because I was out of a job, but because everything I’d ever wanted to do had just gone. It wasn’t a job for me, it was a way of life."
Al has clearly been shaped by his years in the Royal Air Force Regiment. And what’s also clear is he loved it.
“It was what I thought it would be and more. It was absolutely fantastic. I went to over 100 countries and independent states. I chucked myself into it. From age 17 to the end, did it fulfil me and tick all the boxes? Abso-bloody-lutely.”
On being discharged with a war disability pension, the reality of what had happened began to hit home.
“I had my medical interview at RAF Henlow, and I knew I was going to get discharged. It was almost a formality. I thanked them, saluted and went back out. I got in the car and was heading up the A1, and pulled in to get fuel. That was when it hit me. I burst into tears – not because I was out of a job, but because everything I’d ever wanted to do had just gone. It wasn’t a job for me, it was a way of life.”
Al’s instinct to fight his way out of a corner kicked in. Picking up his copy of Practical Classics car magazine, he called up the publisher and asked for a job. As luck would have it, his call was put through to a senior director who had a contact in the Royal Air Force Regiment. After a quick background check and a chat, he was offered a job.
He started out selling ad space to car dealers, and moved to become the business manager in the classic car division. He then left with two other colleagues to set up Practical Performance Car magazine, which is still in production.
Just before the financial crisis began in earnest, Al got itchy feet.
His first experience of financial advice had been when he was out in the Middle East with the armed forces. He ended up being ripped off, but a more positive experience down the line with another IFA planted the seed that being an adviser was a good job.
An epiphany of sorts came in December 2007 and Al approached Edward Jones (later acquired by Towry) to train him as a stockbroker. But the move wasn’t the right one, and so Al approached the British Legion to retrain him as an IFA. Already in receipt of his war pension, he was told the British Legion wouldn’t help him if he got fired or resigned from his current role.
Backed into a corner once more, Al chose to ‘fail’ one of his periodic exams and the contract was terminated. The British Legion then gave him a bursary of £7,000, allowing him to qualify as an adviser about eight years ago and set up his advice firm Echelon Wealthcare.
Servicemen and civvies
Echelon Wealthcare provides advice for servicemen and women. Al’s first client was his old sergeant, and he built up his client bank through military messageboards, racking up the miles and building a reputation.
He believes those in the military require advice that’s different from the needs of the general public.
“Service personnel are dislocated from society. It’s not that they don’t ‘get it’, it’s that they’re so busy in far flung places they just don’t understand these things, in the same way that you and I probably wouldn’t understand what’s going on in central Africa or Afghanistan.
“They also don’t trust civvies in the sense that they are taught to trust their mates, and anybody who’s not in the inner circle de facto has to prove themselves.”
Al feels let down by the recent decision by the Forces Pensions Society to deliver retirement seminars through St James’s Place. He is also passionate about the need to educate people about the financial realities of working in the armed forces.
“It’s got to be ingrained into an 18-year-old lad that after a certain amount of time they will be a civvy, and they cannot wait until the last minute until they look at this stuff. In my day, when I was financially irresponsible in Cyprus, my old flight sergeant took my chequebook and ripped it up. That was his way of helping me, and it worked.”
He says nowadays people are left to go down a “coil of despair”, burning through six months’ of savings as soon as they get home. Because of this, Al sees those who’ve been in the military as “overwhelmingly vulnerable clients.”
A couple of years after setting up Echelon, Al had the idea for the Fiver a day robo-advice service, born out of a desire to engage remotely with clients out in Afghanistan and Iraq. The service has now been put on hold for new clients as the British Steel saga came to dominate Al’s time.
A sample of 10 Fiver a day clients were reviewed as part of the FCA’s work on automated investment services. Of those 10, seven were deemed to be within the scope of robo-advice, and three Al took out of the robo-advice process and treats them as traditional advice clients. He plans to take on board some constructive feedback from the FCA and resume the service in the future.
Great Pension Debate and Operation CHIVE
The idea for the Great Pension Debate, an adviser-led conference geared around pension transfer advice, was sparked almost two years ago. It came about as a result of a conversation on Twitter (as all good ideas do) between Al, David Penney from Penney Ruddy & Winter and Alistair Cunningham of Wingate Financial Planning.
The trio were keen to get together, bring along a sample of pension transfer files and talk through what they did as a way of sharing best practice. Someone else said they’d like to attend, then a few more people signalled an interest, and from there it snowballed. The first Pension Debate attracted almost 300 attendees.
The second event was held earlier this year in the shadow of the Port Talbot steelworks. As well as focusing on helping advisers deliver robust pension transfer advice, there was a lot of soul searching about how the British Steel pension saga came to pass, and how to avoid it happening in future.
The latter is a subject close to Al’s heart, and not just because he grew up in Port Talbot. He heard first-hand about the poor advice the steelworkers received, and played a key role in putting a stop to it.
Towards the end of last summer, when he was on holiday in Spain, Al was contacted via the online motoring forum PistonHeads with a query about the British Steel Pension Scheme.
Within 24 hours, he got chatting to someone else by the pool after hearing their Neath Port Talbot accent. Al heard how this person’s friend had just transferred out of the British Steel Pension Scheme for £1,500.
With alarm bells ringing in his ears, Al started looking into the advice being given to British Steel scheme members. In November, he contacted First Actuarial director Henry Tapper to say he was going to Port Talbot to take a closer look at what was going on.
The pair held a drop-in surgery at the Taibach rugby club. Eight people filtered in with their stories of how they were encouraged to transfer out over sausage and chips in a basket.
Al and Henry left at about 8pm that day, and were shocked into silence by what they’d heard.
“If I hear the phrase ‘no brainer’ now I just put my head in my hands, because that was the phrase they all used. All the stories were the same – it was a no brainer, they were sold the benefits, they weren’t properly told about the risks. It was a complete cock-up. Awful.”
Al was compelled to act and contacted the FCA, the police, and several media outlets about what he’d heard. “I wouldn’t characterise myself as a campaigner, but I was more like: ‘We’ve got to catch these bastards. We’ve got to stop ‘em.’ That was it, it was nothing more virtuous than that.”
As he became aware of the extent of the poor advice given, Al went back to Twitter to call on other advisers to help. And so Operation CHIVE was born.
The acronym is derived from the Hive, a community hub for military families. It originally stood for counselling, help, information, voluntary, education, and has been updated so the ‘c’ now represents the adviser community.
I hope those alleged to have been involved in trying to tear these people from a promised contented retirement after thirty or forty years working in a stifling furnace room look long and hard at these people, and feel absolutely ashamed.#porttalbot #pensiondebate pic.twitter.com/pEspqt0ZW8— Pension Debate (@PensionDebate) July 11, 2018
Al and Henry went back to Port Talbot several times in November and December with around 20 advisers in tow lending support. Other advisers were dispatched to other British Steel locations such as Sheffield and Scunthorpe.
After some persistence on Al’s part, the FCA began to sit up and take notice. FCA supervision director Megan Butler agreed to come to Port Talbot, as did The Pensions Regulator, Michelle Cracknell from The Pensions Advisory Service and the MP Stephen Kinnock.
“All of a sudden you had this thing. We got there and Megan said: ‘Right, you’re chairing this.’ I thought: ‘Hang on, I just booked the room!’ I suppose that’s how I became the face of it really. Henry has done so much, but in a way that hasn’t been so visible, and I suppose I have had an unduly generous share of the praise.”
The Financial Times’ pension correspondent Josephine Cumbo also came to Port Talbot and spoke to the steelworkers. She was the first to break the story, and others soon followed it up.
“The coverage was good because it put the spotlight on Port Talbot. Metaphorically speaking, we had caught the burglar sneaking down the garden path at 2am, just as it was happening. What happened has been horrific in more ways than people can imagine.
“But it’s not just 80 people that we’ve saved, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s also their wives, their children and their grandkids. Those people then spread the word in shops and the local community.”
Al says at the time Operation CHIVE wasn’t about restoring the reputation of advice. “It was like we’re infantry, we’ve got the mission, and it’s to assault the enemy trenches. When you’re in the moment you’re focused on the task in hand.
“I didn’t have any grandiose pretensions about why we were doing it. But now I look at it, if we gear CHIVE correctly, we can restore the reputation of advice, not for the benefit of advisers, but for the people in the community.”
The efforts of Al and other advisers have been recognised with a number of awards, including from the Personal Finance Society and Money Marketing. In one case David, one of the steelworkers, accepted the award, and in the other it was Henry that went up on stage. Both were engineered by Al so he wouldn’t have to be the one in the spotlight.
He says: “I’m not shy, but I would rather be in the background.” (This is something I can personally attest to, having spent five months persuading Al to do this interview in the first place.)
“What was important was what we did – we saved those people’s retirements. Getting the baubles are great. You might find them in a drawer in 15 years’ time, covered in dust, and say: ‘Well, that’s nice.”
Pension Debate III is being held in November at the RAF Museum in Hendon, north London. The plan is for CHIVE to be formally launched as a charity towards the end of this year, with some high-profile trustees ready and waiting in the wings.
Al doesn’t believe we’ll see the likes of Port Talbot again given the scrutiny DB transfer advice continues to be under. But he is concerned about the volume of people coming down the track wanting to transfer, and wants the advice profession to be ready.
He also thinks advisers and planners need to face up to the challenges around attracting younger or less wealthy clients. Otherwise in 20 years’ time, as he sees it, all the high-net-worth clients will have gone and their children will be using robo-advice services.
“As an adviser, there’s nothing that excites me more than the future. I love the fact that in 40 or 50 years’ time when I’m long dead, one of my young clients will have retired. He’ll have his pension statement and it’ll have my name on it and his wife will say: ‘Al Rush, who was that?’ And he’ll say: ‘I must have seen him back in 2012. That pension has done alright. He was a good bloke.’ That’s lovely.”
Al counts himself as incredibly lucky to be doing the job he does. “I am only here because the British Legion gave me some money to train me up. In the military you are always taught to ‘fill the kettle’. It’s about leaving something as you would like to find it. If when I retire I can leave this profession in a better state, then job done.”