In Conversation With Warren Bell, Executive VP and CHRO, OMERS

Knightsbridge:  OMERS is in the process of a fairly significant international expansion. Why are you opening offices in other countries?

Warren Bell, Executive Vice President and CHRO, OMERS, onPeople Newsletter, Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions

Warren Bell: We’re growing around the globe because we’re investing around the globe. Having people on the ground is important to maintaining and building relationships and learning about the opportunities and properly assessing them as well. Not to mention the challenges of the time zones.

Knightsbridge:  What were the human capital challenges of opening international offices?

WB: It’s pretty significant. The first thing you have to understand is that operating in a different country is completely foreign to us in all respects. So the first thing you have to do is to get your home office to start thinking globally. People sometimes miss that. But building expertise on the ground in Toronto to go global is as important as putting the people on the ground in the foreign location.

Knightsbridge: What specific sorts of expertise did you add to your home base?

WB: When you think about an international expansion, you have to actually build all of the support for the offices. It’s not just a sales office or an investment office. Take human resources as an example. You have to understand how to attract the talent, to engage the talent, to keep the talent, to pay the talent. You have to understand the local requirements, the local competition for people and for talent and you need to be able to pay in local terms and local currencies and on local competitive basis.

One of the biggest frustrations that many organizations experience as they expand into other countries is that once you send people over, you need to support them. They don’t have time to be bringing everybody up the curve behind them. You have to actually provide support from home base. Otherwise, you could really frustrate your people who have just moved out into the field. We’ve been fortunate in that we haven’t had that as a significant problem but it’s something that we keep an eye on.

Knightsbridge: So you would have to hire locally. How many of the people in your London office would be Canadians and how many are local hires?

WB: We opened our London office in 2011, and there are more than 50 people there today. Less than 10 would be Canadian. For us, the first person was an expatriate from Canada. The second person was a local person, an administrative person. Then we started to build with local talent and then as we moved up to the next platform or maybe the next business line, then we duplicated that. We brought somebody in from Toronto again to open the next line and supported them with local people. Then we sprinkle Canadian people underneath for development reasons as we grow and evolve.

Knightsbridge: Is that an OMERS model or is that considered a best practice?

WB: I don’t know if it’s considered a best practice, but I would say it is one of the typical approaches that Canadian companies tend to take when they start to grown internationally, and generally with reasonably good success. But I’m really talking about financial services as an industry because that’s where my expertise is. I can’t talk about oil and gas or manufacturing or other industries. It certainly is a technique that has been used in the financial services community successfully.

Knightsbridge: Is the culture at OMERS Toronto evident at OMERS London?

WB: We talk about that topic a lot. What we talk about is making sure that we have OMERS DNA around the globe. OMERS DNA is really making sure that you’ve got people who understand the culture, who live the culture, breathe the culture, and respect the culture. So that is critically important to us as an organization, maybe more so than others. At the same time, we have to make sure that we don’t try to Canadianize the international office to the point where it loses its local effectiveness. We try to blend into the local environment, but never lose the umbilical cord back to Toronto.

Knightsbridge: That’s a delicate balance.

WB: It is, and one that you can never let up on because you never get it perfectly right. You’re always tweaking a little bit here or there.

Knightsbridge: Is a hybrid culture an absolute necessity because of the unique features of doing business in another culture?

WB: For OMERS, it’s about a Canadian company becoming an international company that’s headquartered in Toronto. Over time, you have to absorb some of the culture of what you’re bringing on, otherwise you run the risk of it being too Canadian-centric and maybe not as effective as it could be.

Knightsbridge: So, OMERS has seen a slow absorption of some European culture and perspectives?

WB: Perspective, approach, style, method of communication, method of how to work together, method how you approach the market –it’s definitely something that we think of. You need to be very good locally and you need to understand the local environment to be effective at it.

Knightsbridge: What are some of the biggest things OMERS learned from doing business in Europe? For example, rules governing pay, overtime, and holidays?

WB: All of those have to be sorted out for sure. But what you’ve just described for me are a lot of the tactical points. The concept of how to manage and engage people is probably not as dramatically different. But then tactically, how you do it because the laws are different?

Conceptually, I find that you don’t have to adjust as much, except you have to understand that people operate where their first language may not be English. We have people in our London office who speak five or six languages, and English may not be the first language. You’ve got to get used therefore to how people communicate with you, although generally people who speak that many languages in our experience have a very good command of English. So that wouldn’t be one of them. The ability to speak our language isn’t something we’re finding difficult. Us speaking their language is more challenging, because when you’re in Europe you’re in Germany, you’re in France, you’re in Finland, you’re in Sweden, you’re in Italy, you’re in Spain, all of those have different languages.

Knightsbridge: Is managing the Canadians you send to the foreign offices another human resources challenge?

WB: It is. And getting them to come home too. What I have found is that it’s generally easier to move people internationally than it is to move them across Canada, interestingly enough. The global experience is attractive sometimes for individuals but also for families, where if you’re moving from Toronto to Winnipeg it’s a different reality for people. At the same time, once people have had international experiences, moving them home can be a challenge because the experience has been so unique and so fulfilling that you have really engage the person back home.

Knightsbridge: Does that build appetite at home base for the opportunity to work abroad?

WB: I think so. And you also as an organization have to prove success in developing people’s careers beyond the job that they go to. And that’s something that’s important to demonstrate to people.

Knightsbridge: Has OMERS developed a different perspective on what top talent means in another country?

WB: For sure. We’ve been very fortunate in attracting some really terrific talent. Our story is quite appealing, so given what’s going on in the financial services community outside of Canada and how Canada fared during the crisis, that’s given us a lot more credibility as a country in going out to hire people to come work for Canadian-based organizations. I would say that the process we follow is very similar to Canada. We have to do a lot more due diligence to make sure that we understand the kinds of experiences people have had because they would be new to us in many respects. Once you get a team of people it seems to build like a snowball, quite quickly.

Knightsbridge: Is the interview process more in depth then?

WB: A lot of our recruiting now is based on people you come in contact with as a result of the business that we do. So you actually might see them in action on a different side of the table and say, if I have an opportunity in the next couple of years that’s the kind of person I’d like. Then they become a bit of a benchmark candidate for you – you know them a little bit, you’ve seen them in action. You can build that way quite successfully when you’re a company like us.

Knightsbridge: Do you perhaps rely more on word of mouth than you would in Canada?

WB: I would say in Canada, our name means a lot more. People might be attracted to us more naturally. We have to work harder at it in the foreign location, and it probably takes longer, because you have to get people comfortable with who you are, what you are and that you can actually deliver on what you’re trying to deliver on.

Knightsbridge: OMERS seems to be growing very steadily. Is it destined to become a more international company in the future?

WB: Absolutely. We’re growing quite quickly and we anticipate continuing to grow. As a result, we need investments both in Canada but beyond the Canadian borders just because of the magnitude of what we need to do and we also need to get the returns that will drive our pension plan as well. So we will continue to grow internationally as we grow here in Canada.

Knightsbridge: Do some of your international hires get opportunities to work in Canada?

WB: That’s absolutely at the top of our list. We have a fairly well established succession management program and that concept is built into it. We’re a little bit early on in that process, and we haven’t moved somebody that we’ve hired outside of Canada back into Canada but we certainly foresee the day when we will do that.

Knightsbridge: Why would that be important in terms of overall succession planning? Is that to get some of the “global DNA” back in Canada?

WB: It is. It’s also to help give broader experiences to an individual. Ultimately, if you’re thinking about staffing a CEO job, there is no direct line straight up to that. You have to actually get a series of experiences across the organization. Therefore, if you hire somebody in a business in London at some point in time we will be motivated to give them different experiences to broaden their understanding of the organization, their capabilities, their experience, their knowledge, to determine whether or not they could actually be a successor at the next level of executive in the organization.

Knightsbridge: Does that mean at some point in the future, an international hire will likely achieve a senior executive position at OMERS back in Canada?

WB: Exactly. Which takes years and years to accomplish. And then you’ll be moving into other regions like South America, and then you’ll be moving into Asia and things like that, so it won’t end for a number of years in our cycle for sure.

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