Nina Johnston on the evolution of trust
With three decades in the fiduciary sector under her belt, Nina Johnston TEP, Managing Director of Equiom in the Isle of Man, discusses changes she has seen in this time, the importance of trust in the sector and her experience of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
‘Trust, honesty, integrity, transparency and passion are essential qualities to me in dealing with my clients.’ When asked what she thinks makes a trusted advisor, this is the first thing that comes to Nina Johnston TEP’s mind.
‘Without a doubt, it is all down to relationships. Being a trusted advisor is not just about saying yes to your clients and getting them the outcome they want, it is about being able to say no and explain your rationale.’
Johnston has been in the fiduciary industry since she first entered the workforce, her first role being office junior in an accountancy practice.
‘Back then, I thought to work in an office you needed to become either an accountant or a lawyer,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know what a fiduciary was until after I started working. At an accountancy firm that I worked for, one of the service lines provided provision of trustees and professional directors and I soon took responsibility for company incorporations and managing a small portfolio of private clients.
‘Since then, I was drawn to the fiduciary industry as I enjoyed getting to know clients and their families and being involved in the management of high‑value assets while also gaining exposure to accountancy and legal matters.’
Today, Johnston is Managing Director and Location Head of Equiom in the Isle of Man, a role she ‘would not have envisaged in my wildest dreams’.
Her greatest professional achievement, however, was the successful implementation of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) Employee Workplace Savings (DEWS) Plan, for which Equiom is master trustee. The plan serves to secure employee benefits in the DIFC and has now been rolled out to wider government employees in Dubai.
‘It provides a platform for investment growth through employers making fully ring‑fenced contributions into a trust for the sole benefit of their employees. We collaborated with Zurich and Mercer to deliver a really successful and long‑term employee savings plan.’
Three decades on
In her 30 years in the finance sector, a majority of those with Equiom, Johnston has seen many changes.
‘There are so many more things we have to think about now. The risk environment in which we operate is entirely different; increased regulation and transparency are the obvious significant change, such as the introduction of various reporting regimes,’ she says.
‘Tax legislation has also evolved hugely, my client base was quite UK‑centric in the early 90s, with typical structures like “golden trusts” owning UK‑based private businesses for capital gains tax purposes; these structures are long gone. Now, we typically work with multi‑generational, cross‑border families with incredibly diverse assets under our management.
‘While tax efficiency remains a discussion point, clients come to us to benefit from the highest levels of governance and professionalism – the tax tail no longer wags the dog the way it did 30 years ago.’
A highly regulated environment is vital to delivering professional services, Johnston says, clarifying that all of these changes are ‘extremely positive’.
‘One thing that hasn’t changed is the underlying objective to build lasting relationships with our clients, manage the assets within our structures with diligence and professionalism, and be seen as trusted advisors to them and their families.’
In terms of other changes that have occurred in the past 30 years, Johnston sheds light on the issue of gender diversity in the historically male‑dominated fiduciary sector; a fact that has seen an increase in women wanting to take charge of and become educated about their finances.1
Johnston says it is a ‘far cry from the industry dynamic in 1991, when there were very few female role models and we were required to wear tailored skirt suits’.
‘I feel very privileged to have worked for 17 years in an organisation with a strong female presence in the boardroom from the outset and I have never felt that I am within a minority,’ she says.
‘I am delighted that I have the opportunity to show my children that career success and personal happiness are driven by the effort that you put in and not gender bias. I genuinely believe that people “buy” people so when it comes to developing relationships, demonstrating that you are able to engage with others is key; I don’t think that this is a skill that is limited to either sex.’
‘Diversity and inclusivity are an important part of our cultural values and I can safely say that I have the most wonderful mix of colleagues globally, all of whom make the organisation what it is.’
Equality, diversity and inclusion have become front of mind in recent years, perhaps spurred on by the COVID‑19 pandemic, which stimulated a shift in the way we think and live, as well as the way we work.
The fiduciary sector fared well during the pandemic, Johnston observes, with a huge digital transformation emerging.
‘We used technology solutions to keep in touch with our clients and provide reassurance that we were managing the situation proactively with stakeholders.
‘We are seeing fintech, insuretech and cleantech propositions popping up. The Isle of Man is also an emerging jurisdiction in the e‑sports space (another example of how the industry has changed in 30 years). People are structuring the ownership rights to their virtual gaming teams with fiduciaries rather than physical assets. It is an exciting time,’ she says.
Despite the many advances in the Isle of Man region, the island is not immune to challenges, with Johnston explaining that retaining talent can be difficult.
‘The majority of our young people travel off‑island to study and a lot choose to embark on their careers in the big cities,’ she explains. ‘The island offers incentives such as National Insurance holidays to returning students and new residents, and nobody can deny that the Isle of Man is a beautiful and safe place to live and work.’
Another challenge that Johnston discusses, on a more global level, is miseducation and ignorance surrounding the trust industry.
‘I guess this comes back to how the industry has evolved – it seems that there is an ongoing perception (fuelled by the press) that those using offshore structures are driven by secrecy and tax avoidance, which couldn’t be further from the truth,’ she says.
‘The structures that we manage are more heavily monitored by numerous regulatory task forces than the average person or business onshore. We could make an industry in itself out of the tax compliance work that is undertaken to remain compliant, and the assets that we manage are making significant contributions to economies around the world through taxation.
‘As with anything, unless you need to know the detail behind something complex and new to you, it is human nature to be sceptical. More balanced reporting would certainly help, specifically around educating people as to the intense level of regulation that the offshore industry is subject to and the resultant standards of governance required.’
1 The OECD released policy guidance, endorsed by G20 Leaders at their Summit in September 2013, and complementing the OECD publication, Women and Financial Education: Evidence, Policy Responses and Guidance, bit.ly/3znRPVN
Interview by Kaitlyn Gutzke, Managing Editor, STEP, first published in ‘Evolution of trust’, STEP Journal (Vol30 Iss6), pp.36-37.
Equiom Fiduciary Services (Middle East) Limited is the Operator and Master Trustee of DEWS and is regulated by the DFSA. For information on the regulatory status of our companies, please visit www.equiomgroup.com/regulatory.
Get in touch
If you have any questions, or would like to learn more about taking the next steps with Equiom, please select one of the options below.Choose a location and contact the team Use our website form