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Firing Line: Tim Jones

Tim Jones, the recently departed chief executive of the National Employment Savings Trust (Nest), has officially become one of the great and the good.

In the New Year’s Honours list he was awarded a CBE for contributions to the pension industry, an accolade about which he is characteristically modest.

He said: “Being awarded the CBE feels wonderful. Things like Nest involve a huge effort from many people across a number of organisations, so I hope the award is seen as a recognition of all the great things all those people did to design, procure, build, launch and grow Nest to its current state.”

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But becoming such a big name in pensions was something of a surprise. Mr Jones had made his name in the private sector, running NatWest’s branch network before its takeover by RBS. Then one day a headhunter rang to tell him about the prospect of a big job in pensions. The headhunter having convinced him that the job was not “boring”, Mr Jones successfully applied for it. Now that Nest is up and running, and auto-enrolment is firmly established, people might forget what a challenge it had been to set up the organisation.

Mr Jones said: “We had to be ready by October 2012 because it was in statute. If we had been late people would have said it’s a government IT disaster.

“A normal start-up does a simple implementation first, but we had to be ready for the largest, most complicated corporates first, because they were coming in first.”

However, he said he relished the prospect, because: “I love building things. I’m a corporate builder.”

He realised that success relied on planning in great detail. He said: “The design lays out in precise detail what the system you’re about to procure has to do.” It had to accommodate member and employer contributions at fixed points in time, according to a predetermined timetable.

“These high-level statements have to get broken down to precisely each individual element in which computer systems get built,” said Mr Jones. “If you don’t do this you end up in a mess because nobody knows what to build. If you don’t have a clear idea in detail of what you’re going to do, it’s very difficult to succeed.”

Having launched in 2012 – Mr Jones said it was ready by 2011 – Nest currently has 2.62m members and 30,000 employers. As more people come on board, and decide not to use other products in the market, it expects to have 5m members and half a million employers by 2018. This should help shift its £387m loan from the DWP. Mr Jones said: “If you look at 5m people putting in £1,000 a year, which is not an unreasonable estimate, you’ve got £5bn going in. When Nest gets to £50bn or £100bn of assets under management, it will become comfortably self-sufficient.