Rhiannon McKinnon is among a small group of women who lead a KiwiSaver fund (Photo: Jemma Crook/Alexander PR)
Rhiannon McKinnon is among a small group of women who lead a KiwiSaver fund (Photo: Jemma Crook/Alexander PR)

MoneyJune 17, 2021

Meet the ‘unusual’ new CEO of Kiwi Wealth

Rhiannon McKinnon is among a small group of women who lead a KiwiSaver fund (Photo: Jemma Crook/Alexander PR)
Rhiannon McKinnon is among a small group of women who lead a KiwiSaver fund (Photo: Jemma Crook/Alexander PR)

Rhiannon McKinnon wants to use her position as head of a Kiwisaver fund to help New Zealanders think about investing – including those groups traditionally excluded from the investment conversation.

Kiwi Wealth’s new acting chief executive Rhiannon McKinnon is the first to admit her appointment was “unusual”. She is among a small group of women who lead a KiwiSaver fund. At 42, she’s also one of the youngest people to lead a top 10 wealth and investment organisation in New Zealand. 

But what also makes her unusual is the way she understands the needs of many of her customers, people who often feel excluded from conversations about wealth. Prior to taking the CEO role McKinnon was working part-time as Kiwi Wealth’s general manager of strategy and partnerships. She has three children: two girls aged seven and five, and a three-year-old son.

A lot needs to change about Aotearoa’s financial culture to ensure the idea of wealth is accessible to all New Zealanders, she says. McKinnon plans to use her position to do just that, starting with making retirement planning much more accessible to “regular, ordinary Kiwi”. 

Dressed in a chic mustard-and-navy maxi dress – not your usual dour financial services attire – and perched on a bar stool in a Kiwi Wealth meeting room overlooking Wellington harbour, UK born McKinnon immediately seems like a different type of CEO. Unlike many in her sector, she’s comfortable discussing “the juggle” between her role as a chief executive overseeing more than $8 billion of managed funds and jointly raising a family with her husband Alex. 

She’s seen comments online insisting the fact she is a woman, and a working mother, should not be seen as a big deal, and that the issue shouldn’t be raised in interviews. But McKinnon disagrees. She believes it’s important to acknowledge how rare it is for women to be in top roles – especially in her sector.  

“I don’t mind talking about it because, actually, I don’t feel like we are there yet. It’s still unusual to have a young female CEO. As much as people say ‘it shouldn’t be unusual so you shouldn’t talk about it’, it is unusual.”

McKinnon replaced former chief executive Ian Burns in February, when he stepped down after six years in the post. She was proud to be considered for Kiwi Wealth’s top job especially since she hadn’t been a full time worker for a number of years. It was particularly satisfying, she says, to have her work and the value she delivered for the company measured on its merit, rather than just the time spent in the office. The “gear shift” between work and home has been one of the tougher aspects of taking the job, she says.

“You have a big day in the office and you come home and we’re back with the children. It’s wonderful, but it was a bit of a shock to the system at the beginning!”

Rhiannon McKinnon, acting chief executive at Kiwi Wealth (Photograph by Greg Bowker)

Another unusual thing about McKinnon is her educational background. She graduated with a MA in history from Cambridge University before joining a graduate scheme with UK investment bank JP Morgan Cazenove in 1999. She’d discovered that in the UK she didn’t need a degree in finance or economics to get onto the investment banks’ graduate schemes. 

“I decided to study the subject I was most interested in at university, history, knowing that it wasn’t necessarily closing doors for me later down the line.”

Her arts degree has been an ideal grounding for her finance career, McKinnons says, teaching her how to take a large amount of information and distil it down quickly, and how to craft arguments. 

The graduate scheme got McKinnon up to speed with the world of finance, and led to another postgraduate qualification as a chartered financial analyst (CFA). 

“That’s actually been a super-useful qualification for my career. It has given me a lot of confidence as I’ve moved around the finance field, so I can try my hand at something different each time.” 

While her finance career began in her 20s, her interest in the topic began much earlier. From age 13 she received her allowance in quarterly instalments – an opportunity for the young McKinnon to learn about budgeting and long-term saving. But she also remembers that it wasn’t enough to give her the financial independence she strove for.

“So the minute I turned 16 and got my National Insurance [tax] number in the UK, I was applying for jobs so I could expand my income, and buy more CDs and lipsticks.” 

Later, her older brother inspired her to seek work in the City of London, the city’s financial district, with tales of big salaries and high-powered roles. But while she was initially lured to the City by the financial rewards, she discovered the work was also rewarding in its own right.

“Finance gives you a seat at the table very quickly. In my early career I was getting to talk to the CFOs and the CEOs of some FTSE100 companies and that’s a massive privilege. To be 21 years old and to be in the room with some of these guys is a great start to anyone’s career.”

Money trees are the perfect place for shade (Image: Tina Tiller/Getty Images)

Born and raised in Watford, Hertfordshire, McKinnon is of Welsh and Chinese heritage. She met her husband-to-be Alex, who also works in finance, at Cambridge and they reconnected in China where he was living at the time. In 2006 McKinnon quit her job as an analyst at the multinational investment bank Morgan Stanley and moved to China to study Chinese for a year. In 2007, despite never having visited New Zealand, McKinnon agreed to move to Christchurch with Alex.

McKinnon’s first job in this country was for a small Christchurch based investment bank, Murray & Company. Four years later the couple moved to Wellington to be closer to family. McKinnon worked for New Zealand Post for four years, before moving to Kiwibank as the executive adviser to the CEO. 

Now McKinnon’s vision as CEO of Kiwi Wealth is to help more New Zealanders “take charge of, grow and enjoy their wealth”. While more than 220,000 New Zealanders have their KiwiSaver fund with Kiwi Wealth, it’s not always an easy task getting them engaged with their money. Many New Zealanders don’t feel comfortable about appearing actively money-driven or wealth focused. 

“We did some research around the word ‘wealth’. A lot of Kiwi still find it a really exclusive word, it doesn’t feel like a word that belongs to them, they don’t feel that they would identify with being wealthy.” 

But for McKinnon that idea of wealth is tied to future wellbeing rather than just a number in a bank account. It’s about helping people understand that they’re making decisions now that will affect their financial future in decades to come.

“I would like more people to have the confidence to begin to engage actively with their finances so that they can have more choices when they’re older. If we can make that easier then that’s a huge achievement.” 

Education around financial planning is crucial, too. While McKinnon is a big believer in the opportunities KiwiSaver offers New Zealanders, she’s concerned that its introduction didn’t come with the necessary education about how it works and what it’s designed to do. 

“The average ordinary Kiwi has only been given the onus of their own retirement quite recently, in the last generation or so, and I don’t think people have been well prepared for that. If you can provide something that really helps people make the right decisions so they can maximise their choices and their future then I think that’s really worthwhile.”

Digital resources are part of the solution. A new tool, accessible via myKiwiWealth, takes customers’ personalised financial information and helps them to work out how much they’ll need for their retirement nest egg, and then makes a plan to get there. It makes saving for retirement – something decades away for many customers – feel both immediate and accessible.

“We can help to show you where you’re at, and help you to work out where you want to go, and then really show you, and partner with you, on your path to get there.

“Hopefully we can help people break it down into smaller, simpler decisions, so that we can make it a lot more interesting and really get people going.”

Rhiannon McKinnon, Acting Chief Executive at Kiwi Wealth, New Zealand. 14 April 2021 Photograph by Greg Bowker

She also hopes to help engage those who have to work harder to make savings. Contractors and those taking time off work as primary caregivers often struggle to make contributions to their KiwiSaver, she says. Freelancers don’t benefit from automatic enrolment like employees, and many people will stop paying into it when they’re not working. 

“It is easier to get to the people who are in corporate jobs,” says McKinnon. “If you’re at home or a freelancer it’s harder to reach you. You can’t force people to start but if you can make it appealing and easy to start, that’s a good first step.”

McKinnon herself has spent the equivalent of three years out of the workforce while having children. She finds it frustrating when she compares her KiwiSaver balance with her husband’s and sees the effect that time off has had on her retirement savings.  

“It does penalise people who take time out of the workforce for caregiving. I’m not sure what the way to fix that is. But I do think things are improving: you’ll now see companies paying into KiwiSaver while you’re away, on your behalf.”

Continuing to invest into your KiwiSaver scheme while you’re out of the workforce is also “hugely valuable”, she says. When she went part-time McKinnon upped her contributions by 8%. But she’s the first to point out that not everyone can afford to do this. 

“I’m very aware of that. If you can just manage to stay in the scheme, rather than take the suspension, then I think you’ve done really well. It’s a great start, and an important way to save for your retirement. Then, if you have the capacity at a later date to increase the contribution rate, that’s worthwhile too.”

“Money makes money. And the money that money makes, makes money” (Image: Getty Images)

It’s been four months since McKinnon took on the CEO role. Earlier this month, in probably the most significant moment of her brief time in charge, Kiwi Wealth retained its status as one of six KiwiSaver default providers, a vital way for providers like Kiwi to access new customers.

The announcement also came with changes. When you first set up a KiwiSaver, your money is automatically allocated to a provider’s default fund. Previously this was always a conservative fund – less risk, less reward. But from December 2021 KiwiSaver and the other five default providers will now offer a balanced fund as the default option for new customers.

McKinnon wants this initial engagement with new savers to represent an active relationship between Kiwi Wealth, its customers and their money. She wants to create a connection with New Zealanders and their money that helps them understand how they need to save to get the security they want for their future. She wants to work to help those with less job security to continue to prioritise saving. And that’s about prioritising people, understanding what their lives look like and what wealth means to them.

“It’s more about how you deal with people in a way that motivates them, and how to get the best out of others, and bring in their views. My entire career is about learning how to get along with people better, and that’s what life is about. You’re just constantly learning, you can’t really segregate the two.”

This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwi Wealth. Learn more about our partnerships here

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