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CEO leaves big shoes (and plans) to fill

December 2, 2014 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

Emilian Groch is retired from his role as CEO of the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund after 20 years in the position.

Emilian Groch stepping aside after 20 years at helm of Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund

Everything is going according to plan for Emilian Groch, and that’s just the way he likes it.

As the CEO of the Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund (ATRF) for the past 20 years, Groch cemented a reputation for planning every move well in advance and to the minutest of details. And now his final plan, three years in the making, has seen him retire from the organization at age 60.

“It’s time, before it’s too late,” he says.

“One never knows what’s waiting around the corner. It could be an Edmonton Transit bus that’s just going to take me out,” he adds with a snicker.

Natural fit

Raised in Edmonton, Groch first became interested in actuarial work after earning an honours math degree from the University of Alberta. Commonly employed in the insurance and pension sectors, actuaries mathematically evaluate the probability of future events in order to quantify risk. After three years of working for Alberta’s pension regulator, Groch got an opportunity to manage a Canadian Tire store in Saskatoon. It was in that cutthroat retail environment that he honed his attention to detail, he says.

After two years, Groch became a senior pension regulator with the province of Alberta. His 14-year stay included 10 as the superintendent of pensions, a position that included a seat on the ATRF board. He became ATRF CEO in 1994, a time when the organization was being challenged on every front.

First, it was still adjusting to a 1992 deal that changed how teacher pensions were funded. The ATRF also had significant issues with its internal data systems, staffing, culture and reputation. Groch spent his first five years as CEO systematically normalizing the situation.

“There wasn’t one area at ATRF that did not go through some very fundamental change,” he says.

“Frankly, those first five years, they were brutal,” he adds, letting loose a loud, mirthful cackle.

Financial performance

After five years of tough slogging, Groch got the organization on track and started shifting his focus to improving its financial performance. Over the next 20 years, ATRF’s assets grew from $800 million to $10.7 billion.

This has been achieved partly through expansion beyond traditional investments like stocks and bonds into asset classes like real estate, infrastructure and private equity. This approach, which has become the norm throughout the pension sector, has seen the number of ATRF employees grow to 73 from just 30 not long ago.

While the fund was impacted by two severe stock market downturns, the most recent coming in 2008–2009, it posted strong returns in the last two fiscal years: 19.2 per cent in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, and 14 per cent in the previous year.

“This organization is in a very, very good position going forward because of what [Groch has] done all these years,” says Derek Brodersen, ATRF’s chief investment officer and Groch’s colleague for 17 years.

Groch says he didn’t anticipate the type of success the ATRF has experienced, nor did he expect to be its CEO for 20 years.

“I’m surprised by how long I’ve been here, but we’ve done some really great things, so I guess that’s why I never got asked to step aside.”

Hard worker

Groch lists his most satisfying achievement as the creation of an information handling system that enables automated calculations of teachers’ pension benefits. It took a lot of work to build the system in-house and shift all the province’s school boards to providing information in the way that was necessary, but the change meant that technology could be used to perform calculations, which freed up staff to do what they do best — answer questions and provide explanations to teachers.

Now data on pension benefits are available in an instant to ATRF staff or teachers who log onto the fund’s website.

It’s all part of Groch’s philosophy: the pension plan exists to provide teachers with a sustainable pension and to provide them with easy access to information so they can make sound retirement decisions.

“He’s done a very good job of making sure that everybody stays focused on that goal,” Brodersen says.

As a math person, Groch is very comfortable with numbers, but is also a warm, engaging presence in a room.

“He is a numbers guy when he needs to be, but he’s much more than that. He’s an extremely good communicator,” Brodersen says.

Groch says his leadership style has been to be knowledgeable about every aspect of the organization. It’s an assessment that Brodersen echoes.

“He wants to be able to answer any question anybody asks him about ATRF,” he says.

Groch was as married to his job as anybody could ever be, Brodersen says.

“I could send him an email at 10:30 at night, and if it took him more than 10 minutes to respond, I’d be surprised.”

There’s no harder worker on Earth, agrees Greg Meeker, ATRF’s board chair and an assistant principal at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton.

“He loves to focus on every little detail at the fund, making sure that it was all as good as it possibly could be.”

He said Groch has reached that “holy grail” that he set out to achieve: providing superlative customer service while setting up solidly performing investments with an extremely low cost structure. Groch’s expertise has made him a go-to person for pension people all across Canada.

“We’ve had many warm, deep conversations with him about pensions, managing and investing, but he always can back it up with tremendously in-depth knowledge of the entire Canadian pension landscape,” Meeker says.

“I’m going to miss that because I can phone him and ask him some obscure question about the New Brunswick teachers’ plan and he will have it right there on the tip of his tongue.”

What next?

Groch is a dedicated singer and has recently joined the i Coristi Chamber Choir. Also on his to-do list is spending more time with family and travelling. His first destination is the base camp of Mount Everest (that’s as high as he plans to go).

Despite these plans, and the fact that his successor (former Treasury Board and Finance assistant deputy minister Rod Matheson) is on the job, Groch still pops by the office regularly on an as-needed basis to help with the transition.

He’s also the board chair for the Calgary firefighters’ pension plan, intends to stay involved in industry associations and is hopeful for more board positions.

“I’ve been moving at a rapid pace and involved in a lot of things for a lot of years,” he says. “I’m not sure what would happen to me if I stopped cold turkey.” ❚

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