Mercer adds Dublin innovation centre to management mix

Parent company Marsh & McLennan plans to create 100 jobs in new unit

Management consultant is one of those job titles that can mean almost anything, or nothing. But in the case of Mercer chief executive Tom Geraghty, it's a role that sees him and his team at the heart of some of the most radical changes in the workplace in generations.

The dramatic divide between work and retirement at 65 is blurring as people are living longer and in better health. The demographic bubble also means there are fewer potential workers coming along behind us, putting pressure on traditional state pension structures.

Older workers might step back a bit, but many are looking to retain some involvement in the world of work.

But the nature of work, and not just for those who are older, is also changing with a move towards more flexible contracts and work practices, driven in part by Ireland’s ongoing success in attracting foreign direct investment from multinationals in some of the global economy’s fastest growing sectors.


The increasing influence of multinational employers, demands for greater workforce flexibility and a rapid and fundamental shift in how companies and their employees plan for retirement have all played into the hands of companies like Mercer.

Traditionally described by the catch-all phrase “benefits consultants”, Geraghty breaks its offering down into four constituent parts – retirement provision, wealth creation, health coverage and career progression. “We help clients and their employees make a difference in some pretty key moments,” is how he describes the company’s offering.

Global reach

As of now, those clients number about 600 in Ireland, between them employing about 250,000 people. As the Irish arm of part of the multinational Marsh & McLennan Companies group, it comes as little surprise to hear that about 60 per cent of that client base are foreign, largely north American, companies that have established operations here.

Having that global reach is “pretty helpful” in securing business with companies arriving in Ireland, Geraghty concedes, and Ireland’s continuing outperformance in securing foreign direct investment means such companies continue to account for a growing portion of Mercer’s business.

Mercer also runs the European, Middle East and Africa arm of its global investments business out of Dublin, managing $50 billion on behalf of a range of clients.

And this week, Mercer’s parent, Marsh & McLennan (MMC), announced that Dublin had been chosen as the site of a new innovation centre – its first. The idea is to harness all the data and analytics capacity across the different tech platforms at the organisation’s four business groups – Mercer, insurance broker Marsh, risk and reinsurance broker Guy Carpenter and management consultants Oliver Wyman – to allow it to develop the solutions clients in its 130-country network will require in the future.

It's a significant investment by MMC, which has relocated its chief technology officer David Fike from the US to Dublin to run the unit, and a coup for the Government which has targeted data analytics as an area of opportunity in its Action Plan for Jobs. As country chairman for MMC alongside his Mercer role, Geraghty will also sit on the board.

“We are all excited by it. For Ireland Inc it is a pretty exciting development for us as an organisation,” says Geraghty. “We did have to compete with a few other markets to get there but for a whole host of reasons Dublin won out,” says Geraghty.

Pressed on what gave Ireland the edge in securing the project, he cites the “talent base” and an ecosystem that is building up in Ireland around fintech innovation and R&D. Mercer’s strong position in the local market also helped, as did Ireland’s tax regime.

“Tax was definitely another factor but it is interesting, if you look at the tax arbitrage – Ireland versus some of the other jurisdictions that we were competing against – that position is narrowing all the time,” he says.

The significance placed on the skills of the potential workforce coming through the State’s third-level institutions is significant, with Geraghty admitting that, as a company, “we had some concerns about that in the not too distant past”.

“There seems to be a reorientation back to the whole science and technology piece from the universities and that was key.”

The plan is to create 100 jobs in the new unit over the next few years. “By the end of this year, we should have 25-30 positions filled. And we are not necessarily stuck at 100. If this was to really be successful and to be as we envision it to be, it could be much more than that into the future.”

Wealth space

It all plays to Geraghty’s vision for his company since taking over in 2013.

“If you look at one of the frustrations I have had since coming into the CEO position, it is that we are still known as a pensions firm. That is obviously a key part of our heritage and our culture but we are offering and developing in many other directions. [We are in] the wealth space in the broadest term – retirement provision as well as wealth management – and we are in that health game and in career management. We are strategically pushing those things.”

It’s not difficult to see why. Like any management consultancy, Mercer and MMC are only as good as their ability to embed themselves as key partners for companies when it comes to managing change, whether that’s retrenching in a downturn, or expanding as the economy recovers.

Being a pensions adviser is a solid business but the changing nature of the workplace and employment means faster growth is likely to come from elsewhere for a group whose Irish business is already among the top 10 for Mercer as a revenue base.

The new innovation centre is an additional string to the bow of the Irish operation, whose profile has been raised by the success of the European investment solutions business.

“We are the fastest growing investment solutions business in Europe,” says Geraghty. “We are the second largest investment solutions entity in Ireland. It’s probably not a known fact. We have been quite shy about that in the past. We need to be a bit more aggressive, not aggressive but a bit more confident and bit more loud about some of these areas of expertise that we are basing out of Dublin.”

It’s all a long way from the pensions planning with which Mercer is synonymous. The Irish business employs 500 people here. Parent group Marsh & McLennan employs a further 100 – even before the jobs associated with the new innovation centre come on stream.

Geraghty sits atop the pile. It's a long way from the family farm in Galway where he was one of nine children and his early days growing up at St Jarlath's College in Tuam.

Geraghty was blessed in being both sporty – he played minor football and hurling with Galway – and academic. During his time at the school, he was part of teams that won top prizes at the Young Scientist Exhibition. It was also at St Jarlath’s that he first developed an interest in investments on the back of several school projects.

Having moved on to a degree in accounting and finance at DCU ("I didn't particularly like the accounting but loved the finance"), Geraghty took the well trodden path to the United States after graduation. He landed a role with Mellon Financial, at that time one of the biggest global investment managers.

A decade later, Geraghty and his future wife Rachel, decided to return to an Ireland in the full flush of the Celtic Tiger and joined Mercer.

Somewhat ironically, for all the talk about expanding the company’s horizons, it is in discussing pensions that Geraghty is clearly most comfortable.

And in a week when the Government’s plans for auto-enrolment of workers came under attack from Ibec’s Small Firms Association, he is quick to nail his colours to the mast.

“I cannot see any way out of not implementing auto-enrolment. I think it would be a welcome development. We only have 50 per cent coverage and getting that number up at all, if we don’t have auto-enrolment, is just going to be a continuous challenge.”

He cites the evidence of the UK where auto-enrolment is now in place “and the experience has been quite good, positive. It has certainly got more [pensions] coverage [for private sector workers] and a small percentage of people electing not to join it”.

However, despite the ongoing work of the Department of Social Protection’s Universal Retirement Savings Group to put in place a design of such a scheme and a timeline for its introduction, he remains sceptical about the Government’s commitment to action.

“We have been hearing that music for quite a while as well now but I still have my doubts as to whether they are going to go the whole hog and pull the trigger on it.”

Pension products

Apathy, whether from individuals about their own retirement savings, or in employers and government is, says Geraghty, “a big challenge, a big concern”.

To inertia is added the complexity of the system which makes it difficult for even the informed to understand. And then there is what Geraghty describes as short-termism, particularly in the way final salary or defined benefit (DB) schemes are regulated.

Forcing schemes to be bound by “very short-term accounting measurements” fails to recognise that pension saving is a long-term endeavour, Geraghty argues.

Efforts to “de-risk” Irish pension plans by compelling them to put more of their assets into bonds “precisely at the wrong time” as historic low yields undermine performance “runs the danger of precipitating an even more aggressive closure of DB plans”.

That will only exacerbate the trend towards defined contribution (DC) pensions where individuals are responsible for their own investment decisions – a prospect that frightens most.

Geraghty agrees that education is key but also argues that the industry needs to do a better job of designing pension products.

“From an investment management perspective, the reality is, globally, more and more people are adopting passive strategies . . . and our experience has been a lot of these passive products are really good. They are delivering the market returns, they are as close to benchmark as is scientifically possible and they have low fees”, which addresses one of the major bugbears for the industry.

He believes the way forward for advisers like Mercer is to put in place DC products that don’t have myriad fund options which are likely to confuse but a series of risk labels – moderate, low, high. Members chose their preferred level of risk and leave it to the investment managers to deliver on that strategy rather than micromanaging the selection of particular funds.

If they can manage that successfully in the fast changing workplace environment with the help of the new innovation hub, Mercer will indeed deliver on its mission to make a difference for companies and their staff in those “key moments”.