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Jazz Shaper: Romi Savova

Posted on 07 May 2022

Romi Savova founded PensionBee in 2014 to simplify pension savings in the UK, following a difficult pension transfer experience of her own.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping Jazz, Soul and Blues.   My guest today is Romi Savova, Co-Founder and CEO of PensionBee, the online pension provider.  With a childhood ambition to be a lawyer fighting for human rights, as she says, that purpose driven impulse has stayed with Romi through her career.  As she says, “I discovered I was only truly happy in roles that also make a difference to the lives of others.”  But it was changing jobs and experiencing great difficulty moving her pension that gave Romi her entrepreneurial target.  She would find a way to simplify this archaic, expensive process.  Convinced technology could solve the problem and after market research and talks with investors, Romi and friend, Jonathan Lister Parsons, took the plunge in 2014, launching PensionBee with a million pounds worth of funding from angel investors.  With smart technology that operates like a bank account allowing users to easily manage their pension from the palm of their hand and by working to maintain high quality customer service, PensionBee last year experienced record growth and was awarded Pension Provider of the Year.   It’s great to have you here, I’ve been tracking the success of the business for many years.  Go back to the beginning, so you see this issue, you want to solve it and then you do. 

Romi Savova

You make it sound so simple.

Elliot Moss

It’s much easier said like that, isn’t it?  But why you?  Why this issue?  I mean, you know, you’ve got your MBA I think from Harvard, you’ve got your highly tuned into the world of business, what made this particular issue the one that you really wanted to solve?

Romi Savova

Well I’d had a pretty solid career in corporate finance and I did most of my time at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, always covering financial institutions so, I knew what the financial landscape looked like from a strategic standpoint and I knew that pensions were going to be hugely important in consumers’ lives.  What I hadn’t quite experienced was the pension landscape for myself and so when I moved my pension and realised what a nightmare it is for just normal people to take control of this very important financial asset, I mean for most people it’s the second largest investment that they have after their home.  When I saw the consumer experience and knew how big the market would be, how many people would be affected by this issue, it just seemed like something that I had to do and of course the validation that I then received from talking to all of my friends about pensions and of course talking to potential business partners and investors, reconfirmed that it would be a good plunge for me. 

Elliot Moss

And when you took the plunge and you’d had these conversations, were the investors like, well that’s a no brainer Romi, of course?

Romi Savova

Well some were.  I think some were of course wondering why people would suddenly be interested in pensions and certainly for us one of the biggest challenges is to wake people up to the fact that they are responsible for their retirement savings.  It’s easy to put your pension paperwork in a drawer and forget about it for many years so I think that disengagement with retirement savings certainly made investors wonder, you know, what’s going to make this different and I think our love and our purpose for creating consumer change is what made everybody believe in the business.

Elliot Moss

And that consumer change of course means essentially at that time Romi, you were doing a category job rather than a sell my business and everyone understands the category, it’s not washing powder, everyone says well I use this so, change.  You are talking about fundamentally changing people’s perception of what their pension means to them and their lives.  At the beginning, how do you manage to do that in addition to creating a product which actually delivers easy to manage and switch and combine pensions?  Because they are two quite distinct things. 

Romi Savova

They are quite distinct things but that is the great entrepreneurial challenge, especially in the beginning of any business, it’s the ability to execute on multiple fronts successfully and part of the reason why people choose PensionBee and part of the reason why the marketing and brand awareness continues to grow is because they enjoy using the product and so the two actually go very much hand-in-hand together.  We very much rely on a message that enables people to understand that managing your pensions doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be easy.  We make it easy and indeed our mission is to make pensions simple so, the marriage if you will of that marketing and of the customer acquisition strategy with the product is actually quite key to being able to grow and to attract as many customers onto our technology platform as possible. 

Elliot Moss

The thinking behind the business then and you’ve gone through the what you saw as the opportunity, in those early years did you believe that you could crack the problem or was it more of a, you know this is absolutely there to be cracked but I’m not sure that I can get to a place where a significant percent of the market will actually move over?  Which sounds like a strange thing to ask you but was there utter confidence in what you were doing right from the beginning or has it grown over the years?

Romi Savova

There has to be utter confidence from the beginning and what gave me a lot of confidence in this particular market is that we wouldn’t necessarily have to convince everybody with a pension to become a PensionBee customer.  We can actually be and have been very successful, even with the relatively small market share, so we have doubled our customer base pretty much every single year but because the market itself is so large, we still remain a small, small proportion of the total potential opportunity and so for me, when I looked at this market in the very early days, I realised that we can be absolutely hugely successful but we don’t need everybody to be a PensionBee customer, we just need to be able to grow and to continue growing and to be a substantial player and I think that it’s really important to understand how much of a market you actually have to capture in order to be successful.  We’re very pleased with our growth. 

Elliot Moss

And your growth continues because basically the product works, is it as simple as that and you continue to make the point about this is the second largest investment you are going to have in your life and you need to think about looking after that.  Is that in simple terms what’s going on over here?

Romi Savova

Absolutely, I mean when you look at how many people in the UK have a pension that they could consolidate or move on to PensionBee or how many people could even just start a new pension with PensionBee, we’re talking about customer figures in the twenty five to thirty million range and when we look at our customer base, we have around eight hundred thousand registered customers and about a hundred and forty thousand invested customers.  So, any way you cut this market, we have made a substantial dent but there is still a huge way for us to go and that’s why the vision and the mission, which is to make pensions simple so that everyone can look forward to a happy retirement, remains actually quite unfulfilled and still very much inspiring for the team. 

Elliot Moss

In terms of your own background, Romi and there’s, you mentioned Goldmans, you’ve kind of come at the world of entrepreneurialism through the finance route and also through a pretty academic background as well, do you think all of those chips as it were in the Romi’s you know box, have they been critical to your success or is it more of a that was just your journey and it happened to be that way?

Romi Savova

I think they’ve all been important to the journey and I can certainly think about how each one of them has shaped my experience and perhaps shaped my personality as a person.  I do think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial approach to things.  My dad often tells the story that I tried to sell him my pictures that I drew when I was little so, I think there is something innate in me that likes to create and do new things and to make change and to make a difference, which is so important for entrepreneurs, that drive and that purpose but my career journey I think has brought me to this place and has made PensionBee a possibility for my entrepreneurship so, I think that’s, I think the answer to that is, a little bit of both. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out much more about my Business Shaper, it’s Romi Savova, she’s in the hot seat today here on Jazz Shapers.  She’ll be back in a couple of minutes.  Right now though, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions and they can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Joe Hancock and Katy Ling talk about current trends in cyber fraud and what companies need to do to protect themselves.

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have got a smart speaker, ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will be greeted with a taster of our recent shows.  But back to today, it’s Romi Savova, Co-Founder and CEO of PensionBee, the online pension provider.  You were talking about making change, you mentioned earlier, with regard to being an entrepreneur and you sort of said it’s a bit of, I’m being defined by what I do but also I’ve got to where I’ve got to because of the way my life has gone and Bulgarian, lived in South Africa, studied in America and then settled in the UK and you’ve, I believe, your husband is from another, another world as well, another country, Spanish, I think.  Incredibly international, incredibly varied background.  That ability to not just cope with change but embrace change, do you think that’s in your DNA and is that enabling you to not need all the concrete things that many people need to settle?  You know, are able to sort of construct your own reality as you keep pushing forward with PensionBee and do you think that’s one of the sources of your own success?

Romi Savova

I think for a company that’s growing as quickly as we are, you have to love change because things are constantly changing.  If you think about what it means to double your customer base in size, you know pretty much every year for eight years, you are talking about a time where you have several hundred to several thousand to, you know, tens of thousands to now hundreds of thousands of customers and the requirements for any business are going to be wildly different for that scale of growth so you do have to love change and find it exciting and fulfilling and rewarding and I do think that every year we change to adapt to our growth.  So, yes, absolutely, I love it.  I don’t know if it’s because I am international and have lived in many countries but I do absolutely love change and creation. 

Elliot Moss

And morphing now into the CEO of a public listed company versus being the scrappy founder, again, easy for you?  Do you think, do you sometimes wake up and go, hold on a second, I’m publicly listed, there are people that are shareholders in my business, how did this happen?  And do you have to manage yourself differently as a result?

Romi Savova

Well, the interesting thing is, from the very early days of PensionBee, I knew that we wanted to be public, I knew that we would go on to list and so actively planned for this day. 

Elliot Moss

Did you really?

Romi Savova

We did, we…

Elliot Moss

And why?  Because you just knew that was the best access to capital and you needed it to scale?

Romi Savova

Yes, and I also believe that very large financial institutions with significant consumer brands and customer bases ultimately do end up being publicly owned and so that was always going to be our landing position…

Elliot Moss

But why though in that just…?

Romi Savova

…from an ownership perspective.

Elliot Moss

But why, and why is that so important?  Why are those the variables of financial, big consumer base, equals public listed?  What does it do for you in the business?

Romi Savova

It comes with a lot of trust, I believe, in the company.  Being public means that you are very transparent, you are reporting on a regular basis, engaging with multiple different stakeholders on a regular basis, whether that’s your investors or customers or research analysists and so on.  So there is a very high level of transparency and openness and I think that that is actually quite valuable in terms of building trust in a customer brand.  So, from the early days we invested in things like governance, we had an independent chairman very early on and continued to grow and expand the expertise of our board.  In terms of managing shareholders, again, you know from the very early days, we had a wide range of different shareholders in the company, from friends and family who invested a couple of a thousand pounds all the way up to strategic investors like State Street Global Advisors, we became quite experienced in terms of managing a large shareholder base, which we still have to this day and so I think the journey has been planned and gradual and therefore there is no big surprise when I wake up most mornings but of course I realise that it is also a huge responsibility and it’s important to continue delivering on and meeting and exceeding people’s expectations. 

Elliot Moss

You are talking about the importance in financial services of big consumer brands being public and you mentioned the word transparency and trust.  Your own leadership style and the way that you have grown the team and grown the business, would you describe yourself as transparent?  Is that your style or is it something else?  If there were, you know, one or two adjectives that would capture who Romi really is.

Romi Savova

Well I think that all entrepreneurial businesses ultimately reflect the personality of their founders and the values that the company sets for themselves and we had a conversation quite early on in the journey of PensionBee around what are the values of the company and you know we stick to the five that we came up with then.  One of them is love and I think embracing customers and your community and employees with empathy is incredibly important to my leadership style but also to the way that we interact with each other in the business.  Honesty is actually one of our values as well and especially within financial services, where often times the company will have more information and that will present challenges that it’s important to be very upfront and transparent on, so things like fee transparency or product performance are incredibly important in terms of generating trust and they are also quite important in terms of communication when a business is growing and changing as rapidly as ours, then yes you absolutely need to be having honest and open conversations just to maintain the speed of things.  And then of course we have our values of you know quality and simplicity and innovation and all of those reflect what I love about PensionBee and what I hope our team loves about PensionBee as well. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of living those every day because many, you know, everyone I’ve ever interviewed has talked about values and they’re critical and any good business says it stands for something and that ensures that people know where they’re at and why they joined and why they stay and so on but in terms of those micro experiences that your people will have, how do you hold them to account with each other with regard to living and breathing these values that you have expressed?

Romi Savova

Well, it’s really interesting that you asked that question.  I think the answer to that depends on the size of the organisation and you know what works when you are five people isn’t necessarily the same as what works when you are two hundred people.

Elliot Moss

Which is how many are you are the moment?

Romi Savova

We are very much edging on the two hundred mark.  So, I think in very small teams it’s all about leadership demonstrating those behaviours on a daily basis and that, you know that cascades throughout the company and the way that people interact with each other and that is still very important as the company grows, that everyone and especially people in leadership roles are living by the values and behaving in ways that are expected of them within a certain culture but also there comes a time to formalise expected behaviours and we actually have something called a Culture Code which we have been developing and actively discussing breathing life into taking feedback from and generally engaging with the team on and to have the expected behaviours in the forms of dos and don’ts quite explicitly laid out, I think can be a really, really valuable tool for people to know what good looks like and what it doesn’t look like and so that’s the tool that I think works well for our company now, what that will look like when we are even bigger, I don’t know yet but I know that we are the type of company that responds and adapts to needs and so I am sure we will, I am sure we will find out. 

Elliot Moss

She’s already thinking about it, I can see it.  This is Romi Savova and she knows what she’s doing.  We’ll have our final chat with her very shortly and we’ve also got some new Van Morrison for you, that’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere. 

Romi Savova is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes.  She’s the driving force behind PensionBee.  They’ve been changing the world of pensions pretty dramatically over the last eight years.  Something that’s obviously emerged in the world of investment, well I mean I remember this in the nineties when I was looking at being ethical in what I did but it wasn’t a fashion or a fad at all then, it was a thing that some people did but it’s the notion of investing in a purposeful way, the notion of not investing in things that might destroy the planet or that might support things that ought not to be supported, whatever they are.  You’ve embraced that massively in what you do.  Was that always a thing for you, Romi?  Were you always interested in investing in a value driven way or has this become part of what PensionBee provides because that’s what the consumer needs?

Romi Savova

We are very much driven by consumer needs and wants and customer feedback so, we were one of the first you know pension providers in the market to launch a responsible investing option and more recently to launch a mainstream fossil fuel free pension and that has very much been led by customer demand.  What makes us the perfect business to do that is that it tends to align very well with the way we see the world more generally, you know when we think about our vision of happy retirement for everyone, that includes financial freedom of course but it also includes good health, of which our environment and personal wellbeing are very important elements and it includes social inclusion and so we do seek to understand and to guide the investment strategy in a way that reflects our vision but very importantly reflects the voice of our customers.  They tend to be intertwined but yes, always, always led by the customer. 

Elliot Moss

In terms of the awards for you that you’ve had, I think you were City AM Entrepreneur of the Year in 2019.  Interestingly I read this, so you were included in the Investment Industry’s Diversity Organisation, LGBT’s Great Top 100 Executive Allies last year.  Do these mean much to you on a superficial level or is it much more important to you that they indicate that your business is doing well, that you are values driven?  I’m just wondering because some people quite like these, these awards.  You don’t strike me as someone that really likes these awards for that reason.

Romi Savova

I don’t dislike awards.  I think it would be hard to dislike awards.

Elliot Moss

Here’s a gold star.  You can have one from Jazz Shapers, there you go, it’s yours. 

Romi Savova

But the way I see awards is really a reflection of the health and the success of the business.  PensionBee is created by all of the individuals who are part of the team of the company, it’s not possible to build this kind of business in this size without actively engaging in a team sport and so any award that I receive, I see as ours and as a reflection of what we have done and of course it’s very rewarding to receive recognition that reconfirms and publicises our commitment to the things that we care about.  I want everyone who works at the company to be themselves and to be comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.  Now we talk about this a lot at PensionBee so when we are recognised for it, it’s absolutely a celebration but it is a team celebration.

Elliot Moss

And is Romi Savova herself at work?  Because I mean you’re the main person, you’re leading the charge, you’ve looked forward into what needs to happen and you’ve made it happen.  Do you get the chance to kick back and just be you or…?

Romi Savova

Well I’m always at work.  I think any entr… you know any entrepreneur will tell you that your business becomes a part of your daily life.  I don’t keep a very big separation between the two so, yes of course I have to be myself. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been lovely talking to you, yourself, the person, Romi Savova and thank you for your time.  Just before I let you disappear to go build the next phase of the machine that you are building, the great machine you are building, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Romi Savova

I have chosen At Last.  It was mine and my husband’s first dance song and we practiced incredibly hard to be credible dancers to this song.

Elliot Moss

I love it. 

Romi Savova

So, it brings back fantastic memories. 

Elliot Moss

Etta James there with At Last, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Romi Savova.  She talked about needing utter confidence from the minute you set up your business, the ability to execute on multiple fronts simultaneously is an excellent definition of an entrepreneur and the point she made about having to love change, you’ve got to embrace it as an entrepreneur because your business will change again and again and again.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive, to find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/JazzShapers.

As the Chief Executive Officer, she has played a pivotal role in advancing consumer standards in the pensions industry, from reducing transfer times to campaigning for the full abolition of exit fees. Romi is also a member of the government’s Pensions Dashboards Programme Steering Group, which was set up to advise on the delivery of pensions dashboards.  

Prior to founding PensionBee, Romi worked at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Credit Benchmark, holding varied roles in risk management, investment banking and financial technology. Romi received an MBA from Harvard Business School as a George F. Baker scholar and graduated summa cum laude from Emory University. 

Highlights

The great entrepreneurial challenge, especially at the beginning of any business, is the ability to execute on multiple fronts successfully. 

There has to be utter confidence from the beginning. 

I think that it’s really important to understand how much of a market you actually have to capture in order to be successful. 

There is still a huge way for us to go and that’s why the vision and the mission, remains actually quite unfulfilled and therefore still very much inspiring for the team. 

I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial approach to things.   

I think there is something innate in me that likes to create and do new things and to make change and to make a difference, which is so important for entrepreneurs. 

For a company that’s growing as quickly as we are, you have to love change because things are constantly changing. 

You have to love change and find it exciting and fulfilling and rewarding and I do think that every year we change to adapt to our growth. 

A very high level of transparency and openness and is very valuable in terms of building trust in a customer brand. 

I think that all entrepreneurial businesses ultimately reflect the personality of their founders and the values that the company sets for themselves 

Embracing customers and your community and employees with empathy is incredibly important to my leadership style but also to the way that we as a company interact with each other within the business. 

It is very important that, the company grows, everyone and especially people in leadership roles are living by the values and behaving in ways that are expected of them. 

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