Plan Consolidation Essential To DB Survival

In October 2018, the members of Torstar Corporation’s defined benefit pension plans overwhelmingly approved the merger of Torstar’s DB plans with the CAAT Pension Plan’s DBplus.

Plan Consolidation Essential To DB Survival

In October 2018, the members of Torstar Corporation’s defined benefit pension plans overwhelmingly approved the merger of Torstar’s DB plans with the CAAT Pension Plan’s DBplus.

As one of the first organizations to join, it was in a challenging situation with its pension fund, said Lorenzo Demarchi, chief investment officer at Torstar. He told the CAAT Pension Plan ‘Pensions for Everyone’ conference it was dealing with several risks. One was a concern about whether it would be able to deliver on the pension promise to its employees. It was also increasingly concerned about the level of management distraction surrounding the management of the pension plan at a time when management really needed to focus all of its energy on the business. It was also seeing its business change as the use of digital media grew and became more important.

Just 20 years ago, it had 5,000 employees due to its acquisitions. These acquisitions included pension plans from newspapers it bought “which gave us a very complex DB plan. We had eight distinct DB plans, all slightly different and all with different funding,” he said. “The one thing they had in common was the contributions were heavily skewed to the employer, so it was a very heavy financial burden.”

These kinds of plans reflected a time when the newspaper business was extremely profitable and had the ability to pay these kinds of benefits even though from a governance perspective they were very complex, expensive to administer, and required attention from management.

As its business contracted, its pension business actually began to get larger and larger because its legacy employees were moving into retirement. “So we started to have a mismatch in the size of our pension business relative to the size of our former business,” said Demarchi.

At that point, it made the decision to close its DB plans and turned to CAAT.

For Rick Arseneau, chief financial and administrative officer at the George Hull Centre for Children & Families in Toronto, ON, the situation was different. The employee population at the children's mental health centre is mostly millennials and its special solvency payments were “killing” it. Of its total $12 million budget, $1 million was going to these payments.

It joined DBplus in July of 2021 and it saw an immediate impact on its employee retention, he said. Another benefit was during the process of switching to the new plan, “people became more aware of the pension that we were offering,” said Arseneau.

Katie McNulty, manager of pension solutions at CAAT, confirms that pension plans can attract and retain employees. She is hearing from organizations that attraction and retention is “so important in this competitive labour market.”

Plus, the environment is changing. Job candidates are now screening employers. “One of the first questions they're asking is, ‘do you offer a pension plan,” she said. In fact, one organization was “so bold that they actually put on their job posting that they already offered our pension plan because they needed that differentiator to compete.

“They get it. They know that employees value that lifetime retirement income,” said McNulty.

The CAAT plan itself was established in 1967 as a final average DB plan for the 24 Ontario community colleges. Enabling legislation in 2019 was passed which allowed it to create DBplus and offer it to employers coast to coast.

For Randy Bauslaugh, an independent barrister and solicitor and former co-chair of the pensions and employee benefits practice at McCarthy Tétrault, this is one of the most important solutions to one of the country’s biggest pension challenges ‒ the lack of coverage. “More than 60% of the workers in this country have no pension coverage. We probably don't need to cover everyone as the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS) are probably going to be good enough for the 20% of the workforce that earns below $40,000. But close to 60% of the workforce has no pension coverage,” he said.

As well, the current system is not cost efficient. “We have a system in which we have more than 16,300 registered pension plans, but more than 50% of them have fewer than 10 employees. I don't think that's good for employers or their employees. It's not efficient,” he said.

What is need is more consolidation and economies of scale to provide better pensions for Canadians. Iceland is the number one pension system in the world as rated by the OECD and others. “It looks a lot like our system. It has something that looks like OAS and has something that looks like CPP,” said Bauslaugh. But it also has a private pension system of 21 pension plans that covers 95% of its workforce. They're all multi-employer, industry wide plans. They are cost efficient and they provide secure certain benefits,” he said.

There are opportunities in Canada, in addition to DBplus. The Saskatchewan Pension Plan is actually a group registered retirement savings plan which anyone in Canada can join. Bauslaugh, based in Toronto, ON, belongs to it.

The creation of Ontario’s University Pension Plan was the result of the consolidation of several single employer university plans. There are even for-profit offerings like Blue Pier and Commonwealth.

“Maybe some of the financial institutions will look at this and see that's the way to go. There's hope,” he said.