Staying Flexible

For the past 25 years, Marcia Mendes-d’Abreu has done HR work in the retail, apparel, pharmaceuticals, tech, and financial-services industries, among others. Her experience led her to her current position as senior vice president of human resources and facilities for Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. (Photo: Paul Lawrence)

At her first job, Marcia Mendes-d’Abreu learned adaptability, and today it’s helping her transform the HR department at Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (Teachers’) is Canada’s largest single-profession pension plan, serving more than 307,000 retired and working teachers who have placed their financial stability largely in the hands of its decisions and investment strategies. So finding the right management team is vital. For the past six years, Marcia Mendes-d’Abreu has been the ringleader in building a fully functioning HR department, whose work in turn affects the organization as a whole.

With an HR background in industries as diverse as retail, apparel, pharmaceuticals, tech, and financial services, Mendes-d’Abreu can easily prove that she isn’t afraid of change, and it’s this very quality that caught Teachers’ attention in the first place. When the organization brought her on, it handed her the responsibility of “building a world-class HR organization,” of upgrading the one that was currently in place, and she has approached the work by relying on her experience, which has taught her the importance of adaptability.

“In my first three months, I asked my peers and others in the company what was working on the HR front and what wasn’t working,” Mendes-d’Abreu says. “We were structured in a way that couldn’t support what the business needed.” So she steered Teachers’ toward a business-partner model in which the business partners are supported by a team of specialists in areas such as compensation, benefits, and talent management.

40

Employees in HR and facilities in 2014
(30 in 2008)

1,000+

Employees in 2014
(760 in 2008)

Mendes-d’ Abreu now has more than 25 years of HR experience under her belt, but she didn’t always know what she wanted to do. Unlike many of her friends, who attended university immediately after high school, she decided to work until she had a better sense of the path she wanted to take. At the time, she had a job at a bank, and little did she know it would introduce her to the career she wound up in.

“I had a friend who was studying labour relations at the time,” Mendes-d’ Abreu says. “He described the field as having a strong focus on business and people. Because I was a middle child, I had learned to negotiate with my younger and older sisters. I felt this was right up my alley.” She moved to Toronto after receiving her BA in labour relations with a specialty in economics from McGill University, in Montréal, and three weeks after she arrived, she landed a job as a labour-relations assistant at CIL (Canadian Industries Limited). After that, she worked at Bayer Canada, Levi Strauss Canada, GlaxoSmithKline Inc., Cisco Systems, and Canadian Tire Corporation Limited before joining Teachers’.

The organization has been recognized as a global institutional investor, and in 2013, at least in part thanks to Mendes-d’Abreu’s help, it gave its members a 10.9 percent return. But there are challenges that the company continues to navigate, including the increased longevity of its members, longer retirement periods, and a more volatile, lower-return investing environment. Mendes-d’Abreu says the staff will find ways to mitigate these factors, and Teachers’ new CEO, Ron Mock, agrees. “Building internal expertise has been important in lowering costs and being a pension leader,” Mock says. “We will stay a step ahead of competitors by giving our talent development opportunities and recruiting forward-thinking individuals.”

Mock transitioned into the CEO role in October 2013, and though the change is still relatively fresh, he has the advantage of having already worked with Mendes-d’Abreu at Teachers’ for several years as the organization’s senior vice president of fixed income and alternative investments. Mendes-d’Abreu acknowledges that their new relationship is a vital part of her role. “You have to have a strong relationship with your CEO in order to translate their strategies into the right talent solutions for the organization,” she says. “Each CEO has different approaches, and Ron has a really good understanding of the company since he was promoted from within.”

Although Mendes-d’Abreu isn’t able to predict the future for Teachers’, she is sure that it will continue to blaze the trail for the pension industry. “I think it’s critical for any leader to be adaptable, particularly in our environment today,” she says. “You have to move at the speed of change.”