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What's Up Pension Stuff? Sock Hopping with SHEPP!

Hi all,

I hope you all had a restful holiday. 

I had the privilege of sitting down with Alison McKay (CEO) and Dale Markewich (CFO) this past week to discuss what was happening at the Saskatchewan Healthcare Employees’ Pension Plan (SHEPP). With over 59,000 members, 50 employers and assets approaching $8B, SHEPP is the largest defined benefit pension plan in Saskatchewan. Given the pension industry in Saskatchewan is so small, I’ve known both Alison and Dale for years, so it was nice to not only catch up but learn a little about what is keeping them up at night.  

SHEPP’s journey started in 1962 with the adoption of the “Retirement Plan for Employees of Contributing Member Hospitals and Allied Organisations of the Saskatchewan Hospital”. In 1993, three separate healthcare associations amalgamated to form the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO). At the same time, the original plan from 1962 was renamed the “SAHO Retirement Plan”. I think people were tired of using the acronym RPECMHAOSH for the pension plan!  Although there have been many changes to the plan over the years, one of the more notable changes was in 2003 when the plan became a jointly trusteed pension plan. It was at that time, that SAHO and six health care unions decided to sign a trust agreement resulting in the creation of the Saskatchewan Healthcare Employees’ Pension Plan (SHEPP). SHEPP’s Board of Trustees is comprised of 8 Trustees (4 union-appointed and 4 employer-appointed) and is the legal Plan Administrator. They are responsible for all investment and funding decisions.  Having said that, plan design and benefits are the responsibility of the Union Partner Committee and the Employer Partner Committee.

After spending only 30 minutes chatting with Alison and Dale, I can tell you things are hopping at SHEPP these days. While keeping the lights on and doors open, they are also busy with the following major initiatives:

  • Strategic Plan – They are in the initial stages of moving to a 5-year rolling strategic plan. This plan is to guide the Board and other stakeholders in where the Plan is headed. In my mind, planning for the future is one of the keys to success for any Board. It becomes very difficult to get buy-in from the various stakeholders if they don’t see your vision or where you want to go.   
  • Customer Service – My dad was a business owner for over 40 years, and always told me that a happy customer is the #1 focus when you are selling a product or service. Although SHEPP is not selling computers or pencils, their mission is to “serve” the best interests of their members. With that in mind, they spent considerable time defining what that service should be and then providing training to their employees based on the defined service levels. What I thought was interesting is the approach they are taking, in that the overarching theme of the training is to make sure they understand what the customer needs and wants rather than assuming they know what they want. Pension people would never do that? :)  SHEPP has always been very good at delivering the transactional side of service and is now focused on the integration of the relationship-building aspect of their service delivery. As our digital world moves forward, we can’t forget about relationships and that most people remember their last bad customer service experience!
  • AIMS project – With the creation of the new health authority in Saskatchewan, the government decided to take their current 82 systems and move to a central administration management system for all employers in the province. This project has been labelled the “Administrative Information Management System” or “AIMS”.  Since SHEPP receives data on a regular basis from all employers, they will be involved in the design and testing of any aspects that impact their world, along with ensuring the data will be compatible.  Anyone with experience working with systems will know that this is no small feat. I promised to send them some candy to keep their spirits up!
  • Asset Mix – They are well along in implementing new strategies approved by the Board coming out of the most recent asset liability study. New strategies added include liquid alternatives and foreign real estate. Private equity is on the way.
  • ESG – I’ve yet to talk to a pension plan that was not thinking about ESG. This is one of the hot issues in the pension world these days and is forming part of the agenda for SHEPP. In recent years, their Board formalized its ESG beliefs in a Responsible Investment Policy and receives annual reports from their Administration on the actions taken by the Plan’s investment managers to integrate ESG in their process. A Board workshop late last year launched a further review of ESG integration considerations and best practices. Just the other day I read an article written by Catherine Ann Marshall where she talks about ESG investing. In particular, it was interesting to hear her take on whether or not governments will take a more forceful approach to ESG investing, in regulating and mandating certain investment thresholds for companies to adhere to. The ESG era is here to stay, so we just need to accept it! 

Of course the SHEPP is also working on run agenda items (e.g. valuations and liability dashboards) but those don’t sell magazines so I’ve left them out! 

Stay tuned for next month’s discussion with PEBA.

Cool dad signing off…

BTW – My kids bought me socks for Christmas. I attached a picture for you to see… maybe I should get a tattoo!


Troy Milnthorp is a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, Senior Managing Director of Corporate Fund Services at Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, and Volunteer Content Creator for CPBI Saskatchewan. 

CLICK HERE to learn more about CPBI Saskatchewan!

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