Pramerica puts Donegal at the heart of global enterprise
Irish subsidiary of US pensions and insurance giant Prudential Financial offering world-class opportunities in Letterkenny
Loving Donegal: Joe Browne, Jennifer Scott, Joe Kiernan, Joseph Dunleavy, Aisling McDevitt, Alan Fletcher.
When Ciaran Harvey left college in his native Letterkenny, the software and electronics engineer presumed he’d end up applying his skills in Dublin or overseas. But 17 years on, Harvey finds himself leading a dynamic 1,500-strong team – all from a base barely five minutes from his Letterkenny home.
Harvey is senior managing director and chief information officer of Pramerica Systems Ireland, a strategically important subsidiary of US pensions and insurance giant Prudential. Pramerica’s phenomenal growth since its creation demonstrates that when the IDA succeeds in wooing a US multinational to even the farthest-flung corner of Ireland, the results can defy all expectations.
Visitors to Pramerica’s newly-opened offices on a hill overlooking Letterkenny cannot help but feel an energetic, upbeat vibe from a spotless, vibrantly coloured workplace that feels like a home from home. The main foyer is alive with brainstorming discussions as colleagues chat, their laptops and lattes in hand, while others nearby introduce new teammates to Pramerica’s sports clubs, weekend outings and community education programmes. It’s a place where spouses make easy commutes to work together, teleworking from home is promoted, and learning new skills is served up on a daily menu of encouragement.
Pramerica has grown beyond recognition from its humble roots, when Harvey was just one of eight employees, to its status today as a primary provider of back-office brains for Prudential. The Newark, New Jersey-based financial services giant now counts on Pramerica to deliver about 200 categories of service.
“We’re offering a professional career in a fantastic location,” says Harvey, sitting in his office overlooking Letterkenny and the rolling hills beyond, photos of his three children, aged nine to 17, on the wall behind him.
Pramerica has just completed a move from its original IDA base to new offices with floor-to-ceiling windows, a theatre, gym, coffee bar and cafeteria. On a typical work day, some 1,200 work on site, while 300 more work from homes across Ireland as part of Pramerica’s pro-teleworking agenda. The Irish company also operates offices in El Paso, Texas to provide Prudential 24/7 cover.
We’ve done a lot of work in the last four years educating people and inviting people in. Donegal has a good understanding of Pramerica now
Pramerica has become the biggest private employer in Donegal, and locals are gradually getting their heads around the full dimensions of what opportunities it provides.
“For the longest time, people in town would say: ‘What do you do in that factory on the hill?’ Everybody knew Pramerica was here, but nobody knew what we did,” Harvey says. “So we’ve done a lot of work in the last four years educating people and inviting people in. Donegal has a good understanding of Pramerica now. They understand we have lawyers and mathematicians and accountants and property accountants at work up here, and these people might very well be their cousins and brothers and sisters.”
Pramerica received the ultimate professional compliment when, in 2013, Prudential chiefs asked Harvey to oversee the creation of a new division of Pramerica in the heart of Texas. Harvey, his wife and three children spent two years in El Paso, where Harvey established a Pramerica branch with specialised skills in Spanish-language sales and support.
Harvey also oversees the El Paso branch with its approximately 250 employees, a majority of whom are US military veterans or their spouses. That reflects an official Pramerica policy to support military families in El Paso. That commitment extends to keeping spouses employed and teleworking from home when their army partners are redeployed to other US states – from Alaska to North Carolina.
A big sun-soaked photo on Harvey’s office wall shows his last full day in El Paso in 2016, surrounded by new employees with their handwritten messages ringing the frame.
“Moving to El Paso was professionally exciting and the family experience was fantastic,” says Harvey, recalling his daughter’s love of American-style high school and his sons’ club soccer tours of Texas. “If you get the chance to do an expat assignment with your family, you’ll never regret it.”
But there’s also no place like home, and Harvey’s just taken a call from his son at the school around the corner. He’s forgotten his PE kit.
“I’m going to nip home shortly to get his gear and drop it in to him,” Harvey says. “This is the thing about working here in Pramerica. We’ve time for work and we’ve time for family too.”
Here’s an introduction to some members of Pramerica’s professional family in Letterkenny.
Digital solutions centre director
Joe Kiernan wanted to keep travelling, not set down roots. The Dubliner had just finished a few years’ profitable work in Australia, working on corporate software, and spent most of his savings while travelling through Russia, South America and the south Pacific.
So when former Dublin workmates said he should join them at a new Letterkenny company called Pramerica, Kiernan’s impulse was to go simply because he’d never been to Donegal before.
“I figured I’d earn a bit of cash, have a bit of a holiday, explore Donegal, then say bye after six months,” Kiernan says with a wry smile. “That was 15 years ago.”
While many here describe their discovery of Pramerica as a life-changer, Kiernan’s tale has an extra dimension: while looking for a place to stay in Letterkenny, he checked out several shared flats – and found his future wife, Lisa.
“When I was looking for accommodation, Lisa just happened to be in one house where they were looking for lodgers,” he says. “I always joke that I’d gone to see a few houses that day and hers was €5 cheaper. She was the cheapest one and that’s how we met!”
Today, the couple both work at Pramerica, he as a director of the company’s Digital Solutions Centre shaping about 70 Prudential websites, she as a team leader in the DevOps engineering section.
The couple has three girls – Erin (5), Tara (3) and two-month-old Sienna – who are being raised with mixed GAA loyalties, given that Lisa Kiernan is a native of nearby Ballybofey. “I’ll throw Dublin jerseys on the kids in the morning and the wife will put them in Donegal jerseys when I’m not looking,” he says.
Kiernan says he finds the workplace banter on matters GAA to be always good fun. In the build-up to the 2014 Dublin-Donegal semi-final, Kiernan boldly declared he had already booked that Monday off work to celebrate the Dubs’ victory. When Donegal pulled the long-odds upset, he returned to find his desk surrounded by dozens of photocopied faces of the Donegal manager, Jim McGuinness.
“We’re good friends here really,” he says. “There’s loads going on, you’re never bored, and that’s what keeps people here.”
Servicing director at Prudential Asset Resources, a business of PGIM Real Estate Finance
Pramerica prides itself on starting many recruits in a customer-facing role, learning the ins and outs of sales and service – but merely as Act One in a dramatic career path. Aisling McDevitt offers a great example of how this culture of rapid advancement works in a company developing many divisions under one roof.
The native of Castlederg in neighbouring Co Tyrone arrived as a temp at Pramerica in 2001 and got to work fielding calls from faraway US clients enquiring about their Prudential property and auto policies. She hadn’t graduated from university but wanted to qualify as an accountant. McDevitt won three promotions within three years and, within a few more, found herself leading a team of mutual fund advisers helping Americans to save for everything from university fees to retirement.
Pramerica aided her education at every step, helping her attain a licence as an investment adviser, rapidly followed by a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin and an accounting master’s at Letterkenny Institute of Technology down the hill.
Her rising star garnered interest from Prudential’s real estate investment wing, which seconded her to its Dallas base. She spent seven months in Texas learning the ropes of how Prudential finances commercial property investments and brought that expertise back home to Letterkenny. Again with company support, she earned her CPA licence with a specialisation in strategic corporate finance.
That’s what she does today, overseeing a 20-strong team funding the growth of commercial property portfolios across North America, Europe and even Australia. They’re about to start lending to commercial investors in Ireland, and McDevitt – a member of Pramerica’s in-house accelerated leadership programme – credits Pramerica for investing so much in her.
“From my very first day Pramerica has felt like a career, not a job,” she says. “It’s been one opportunity after another.”
Talent acquisition strategist
Thinking of coming to work at Pramerica? Chances are you’ll talk to Alan Fletcher, who is part of the Talent Acquisition team responsible for sourcing and onboarding a range of roles including software developers, actuarial associates and data scientists.
Fletcher has personally recruited agile coaches, IT specialists and project managers from as far away as New Zealand, Malaysia, South Africa and Brazil. The Talent Acquisition team is a busy one and continues to actively seek business analysts, senior data scientists and RPA associate roles, to name a few.
“When we’re recruiting someone, I like to say that our company’s like a hidden giant. It belongs in Silicon Valley but we’re hidden up here in the hills of Donegal,” says Fletcher, who joined Pramerica two years ago after having worked as a global headhunter, recruiting talent from across EMEA, North and South America before returning to the north-west to find a better work-life balance. “Here, you’ve a work-life balance, the traffic isn’t as bad and I get to see more of my family and friends in the evenings,” he says.
Today, he lives with his wife Zoe and their two children on the beach in the Buncrana of his childhood. He cites his own happy circumstances when telling recruits about how nice Pramerica and Donegal are for active graduates and young families.
He tries to play a round of golf at least every other weekend alongside workmates in Pramerica’s golf society, which offers discounts at six clubs, and competes on the company’s Gaelic football and soccer teams.
For 14 years, Joe Browne tried to convince himself and his Donegal-born wife that Dublin could become their home. But fighting traffic to his job took a toll in a city that, for the couple, meant endless compromises and postponed plans as monthly rent gobbled up their salaries.
After his wife became pregnant, they decided their newborn boy should be raised alongside grandparents in his native St Johnston and her hometown, Lifford, so they quit their jobs to head back to Donegal. He recalls incredulous former co-workers questioning why, given their sense that “there’s nothing up there”.
Today, two years after joining Pramerica as a data analyst, Browne leads a 10-member team in identifying how customers might buy insurance online five to 10 years down the road. His current goal is to improve how Prudential personalises customers’ experiences when they log in to their policy pages. “The challenge is,” he says, “what do customers want to see when they land on a particular page?
“I wouldn’t have had an analytical mindset when I arrived, but I’ve been encouraged to develop one,” Browne says. “There’s a classroom element in how Pramerica develops its staff and it helped me grasp what they require of a data analyst. We learn skills in the classroom and do project work to apply the skills.” He says it’s common for colleagues to share knowledge in impromptu sessions billed as “tea and training” or “lunch and learn”.
He is emphatic about his good fortune in finding an ideal workplace.
“Without Pramerica, we’d still be in Dublin, still compromising on all the small things,” Browne says. “Now, without question, we’re happier in life and in work. Before, I was just in a job and was always worrying how we’d ever get ahead. I’m not worried at all now, because I can see a clear, long career path here.
Business analyst in the Law Compliance and Business Ethics division
Mary Stewart is a business analyst at Pramerica – and, because she embraces the company’s commitment to building the skills and confidence of Donegal youth, so much more.
Stewart volunteers as a teacher, life coach and role model to hundreds of children each year in Letterkenny schools and a secondary school in nearby Milford. She’s grateful to Pramerica for giving her a lead role in its corporate social responsibility programmes that she says encourage students “to work to their own strengths, march to their own beat and do the very best that they can”.
She works individually with secondary school students deemed at risk of dropping out on their real-word job-hunting savvy, from handshakes to CVs and interview techniques, and brings them on workplace field trips to show what opportunities exist at Pramerica if they keep striving to learn.
As part of her volunteer work for the Junior Achievement Ireland charity, she often spends part of one day each week teaching a class in a local school: perhaps basic money management to five-year-olds one week, lab science to 12-year-olds the next.
She’ll always ask how many in the classroom have family members working at Pramerica and is heartened to find there’s always at least one hand go up. “You want the children to know that if they go to college and want to come back home, we’re creating opportunities they can come home to.”
Stewart embodies the Pramerica ethos of attracting intellectually curious talent, regardless of age or background.
After starting work life as a lab technician in Letterkenny Hospital, she took a 23-year career break to raise her son and two daughters, then retrained as a software developer, completing a diploma at a Derry college and joining Pramerica seven years ago as a software tester at the age of 51.
“I have never felt any sense of disadvantage or being out of place in a young workplace, and I’ve been amazed by that,” says Stewart, who today works as part of a mostly US-based team in the Law Compliance and Business Ethics division. “I never feel old here.”
Deep focus on local investment
Toni Forrester, chief executive of Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce, says Pramerica has dramatically changed the energy of the town, injecting hope and commercial confidence in a corner of the country that has long struggled to create and retain jobs for the next generation.
Pramerica arrived at the turn of a millennium when Donegal’s traditional industrial base, yarns and textiles, was unravelling. Thousands faced the dole or emigration queue. Pramerica’s new HQ today sits beside the site of the town’s previous top employer, the Unifi yarn factory, which faded for good in 2004 as Pramerica blossomed – and helped pull Letterkenny through the worst of Ireland’s more recent years of fiscal crisis and austerity.
“Pramerica kept on growing while the domestic market was falling off the edge of a cliff,” says Forrester.
“And now it’s driving the wider sense of recovery here. It really has been special for us.”
Pramerica’s presence is felt in the profitable ledgers of local suppliers and in the active registers of Letterkenny’s shopping centres, shops and retail services.
Of critical importance, Forrester says, has been Pramerica’s generous investment in the Chamber’s Shop LK vouchers, a product designed to spur consumers to spend in the town, not online or in neighbouring Derry.
Forrester says the Chamber sold €1.7 million worth of cards last year. Almost half were purchased by Pramerica alone to be used as Christmas bonuses, performance incentives and competition prizes for its employees.
“It’s been huge for us. Pramerica’s commitment gives the Shop LK system real credibility,” says Forrester, who notes that in January the company gave more than 1,300 employees €500 each in Shop LK vouchers – more than €650,000 flowing straight into most of the town’s 165 stores and businesses.
“You can tangibly feel that spending in the town, lifting the atmosphere,” Forrester says. “We get shops specifically joining our Shop LK scheme because of Pramerica employees wanting to spend the Shop LK cards there. Every week, we’ll have another order for one of Pramerica’s awards programmes. Even the teleworkers get them, so they have to come back to base to spend their money in Letterkenny.”
Forrester says Pramerica’s focus on local investment runs deeper. At the October ceremony opening Pramerica’s new 1.35 million-square-foot headquarters in Letterkenny’s hillside industrial estate, company leaders praised the quality of work done by 220 local tradesmen, the office equipment suppliers, hospitality and accommodation outlets and, most of all, Letterkenny architecture firm, AL Architects, which received the contract to design the light-filled complex.
“Pramerica makes a point to buy in to the local community. It’s obvious they will use local business whenever they can,” she says.
Forrester sees Pramerica as an important driver for Letterkenny’s hopes of expanding from 20,000 residents currently to nearly double that within the next 15 to 20 years. She says that will depend, too, on successfully growing native tech firms at the incubator programme at nearby Letterkenny Institute of Technology.
Already, she says, Pramerica software and IT veterans are gravitating in that direction to establish their own entrepreneurial start-ups there.
“It’s always been tough in the north-west to attract inward investment, so that’s why Pramerica is so important,” Forrester says. “Pramerica has shown how an American company can come here, start small, build a base of international expertise – and inspire the wider community to grow our own opportunities.”
For more, visit idaireland.com