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Interview with IEBA Chairman Norman Dreger

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Norman Dreger, Partner and Multinational Client Group Leader, International Region, Mercer

Global Benefits Vision: What is IEBA’s mission in the global employee-benefits industry historically and what is it today?

Norman Dreger: IEBA is the world’s leading association providing education, information and professional development opportunities in the constantly evolving world of International Employee Benefits, with more than 800 members worldwide.

In addition to the development of the International Diploma and the Certified Practitioner Accreditation, our objectives include facilitating the exchange of information between members on matters relating to international employee benefits. Our members come together to learn and to discuss issues relating to international benefits with one another at our Annual Conference and at our events in the various countries where local IEBA branches operate.

Four core values differentiate IEBA, of which we are very proud:

  • We are international in our remit.
  • We provide educational and networking opportunities to market participants.
  • We are impartial and non-commercial.
  • We are not for profit.

GBV: Can you recall for us some of the history of IEBA, when it started and a little about its first years?

ND: IEBA was created in the early 1990s after the founders had identified the need for an educational qualification that specifically related to international employee benefits, and the Diploma in International Employee Benefits was created. The first IEBA Annual Conference was held in London in 2001.

In 2006, IEBA merged with the Double Century Club, which had been founded in London in 1975 and had grown out of a study group commissioned in 1973 to study life insurance and pensions across what was then the European Economic Community; the members of the study group realised they had enough in common to merit establishing a club, which they did, holding regular events in London. IEBA used this as a template to organise similar events in other countries, starting a long period of growth into the organisation that it is today.

Essentially, we have two histories: that of IEBA as a separate entity, and the one that starts with our merger with the Double Century Club in 2006. We found a niche in the early 1990s, for practitioners working in the international benefits space who needed a professional designation that recognized their work in this area; so while actuaries have their actuarial designations, and there’s a CFA Charterholder designation for people who work in treasuries and investments, there was no formal path leading to a professional designation for people working in international employee benefits. So, one of the first things IEBA did was to create a Diploma in International Employee Benefits (Dip.IEB) together with the Pensions Management Institute (PMI) of the UK. Shortly thereafter we held our first Annual Conference in London in 2001.

IEBA has been providing educational as well as networking opportunities to our members from the very start, bringing people together in the context of learning in a neutral environment where they won’t be bombarded by sales pitches, and where they’ll get to meet other market participants and learn from each other. That’s still our raison d’être today.

The mission of IEBA is really fourfold: we have the educational opportunities provided through the new Certified Practitioner designation and IEBA diploma, the educational materials we make available to members through our website, the networking provided through the Annual Conference in Brussels, and then the interaction at a local level with the branches.

GBV: Can you tell us a little about your own personal background? Why did you take on the responsibility of being chairman?

ND: I am a Canadian citizen of German extraction. I grew up in Northern Canada in the beautiful Skeena River valley and studied combined Honours Mathematics and Chemistry with a Minor in German at UBC in Vancouver. As my studies were coming to a close, I stumbled across the actuarial profession (that I had never heard of before), wrote and passed a couple of exams, and then applied to work at Mercer in Vancouver.

I was keen to put my German skills to the test and was delighted at the opportunity to move to Germany with Mercer in 2001. After this, I had a number of roles, but always with a focus on working globally. My current role is leading up Mercer’s Multinational Client Group in the International Region.

I have been active with IEBA since 2007, and on the main committee for over a decade. I am proud to be part of IEBA, no other organization has helped me to expand my professional network so quickly and extensively. I also sat the IEBA Diploma, and although I had been working as an international HR consultant for many years, sitting the diploma helped to close gaps in my own knowledge base. And now I’m thrilled at the opportunity to chair the IEBA committee for the next two years.

GBV: Do you envision IEBA becoming a lobbying organization at some point?

ND: No. IEBA is a not a partisan organization, one of our main values is to be “impartial and non-commercial”. We have a broad membership consisting of corporates, providers and consultants, many of whom will have different views on a given topic. Our objective is to bring people together, to facilitate the exchange of ideas and networking, and to educate, not to lobby for or against any particular piece of legislation or policy.

GBV: In terms of lobbying, what about the European branch that is just being set up in Brussels?

ND: Again, it still follows the same principles; we have participants at the European branch who come from corporates, from the insurance industry, the pension fund industry and the consulting industry. Often, you’ll find when it comes to policy that these stakeholder groups have very different views. Again, we want to be impartial and non-commercial. We don’t want to be seen as driving the commercial agendas of any of our participants by lobbying. We have lobbyists as members, but again, we also have people present from every other part of the industry, and when they enter the room, they have to “take of the hat” associated with their day job. Everyone comes from somewhere and has their own agenda but the reason we are together is to be in an environment where we can all network and learn from each other as peers. We are very cognizant of trying to maintain that environment; and it’s not necessarily a safe space—we challenge each other and have tough conversations, but it’s not about driving one’s own commercial agenda. If we see organisations doing this, we pull them aside and talk to them and if they don’t improve, we ask them not to come back.

GBV: What are the activities IEBA offers?

ND: IEBA has four main pillars of focus:

  1. Providing Educational Opportunity: IEBA was founded with the objective of providing educational opportunities to its members, and this has remained the key vocation of the Association as it has grown over the years. We offer two distinct educational programs in international employee benefits, the IEBA Diploma and the IEBA Certified Practitioner (starting in 2019) as well as overseeing the provision of an up to date flow of related educational materials.
  2. The annual IEBA conference: We hold our Annual Conference in Brussels in March and have done so every year since 2007. We have been consistently attracting increased attendance that is now close to the maximum of 190 that the venue can accommodate; this reflects our continued efforts to keep our activities relevant and topical, as well as our policy of keeping the attendance fee as low as possible. As a result, we will be moving to a new location next year with increased capacity.
  3. Local branches: Local branches of IEBA are now operational in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Nordic region, Switzerland, the UK and the US, each running a regular program of seminars, discussions and informal events. On our website (www.ieba.org.uk) you can find details of forthcoming events, lists of past events, and (for members only) downloadable copies of the presentations.
  4. Web site / knowledge sharing / membership: Membership of IEBA gives you access to a regular program of educational and networking member activities, as well as a wealth of educational materials on the IEBA Website.

GBV: Can you comment a bit on the creation of the local country branches?

ND: We merged with a UK organisation called the Double Century Club in 2006. This was an association of employee benefits professionals, formed in 1973, and so that merger essentially made the UK our first country “branch”. I personally first got involved with IEBA when Graham Pearce first established the German IEBA branch in 2007. A branch was also established in Switzerland—now one of our largest and most successful branches and has been expanding ever since.

GBV: What can you tell us about your plans as IEBA’s chairman for the next two years?

ND: Some of my priorities for the coming two years as chairperson are as follows:

  1. Make IEBA more digital: We have already made a large ongoing investment to modernize our website, but we could do so much more! For instance, at this year’s annual conference, we experimented with an “Event App” for the first time, and it was very well received by the participants; I expect we will expand on the use of these types of technologies at our next Annual Conference in March 2020.
  2. Better support the branches: Rather than focusing on geographical expansion, I think IEBA could be well served by going through a period of consolidation and better supporting our existing branches. Some of our branches struggle at times to get sufficient attendance at branch meetings, and as a central committee, we will try to do more to help the branches share knowledge, organize their events and be more effective.
  3. Increase diversity: IEBA has done quite well in broadening out from being a largely UK based organisation to being a truly global one. I would like to also help make the committee more diverse; I am cognizant of the fact that most of the main committee members are male, and would like to see the gender balance improved. I would also be delighted if our next chairperson were to be female.
  4. Further increase our membership: A key ongoing objective is to increase membership, and particularly attendance at meetings, of what we call “employers” responsible for their employees’ benefits, as distinct from service providers. This is also essential for our success: Without sufficient corporate attendance at events, they simply degrade to the point where providers and consultants are all just talking to themselves. While we have strong corporate membership currently, we have recently launched a new corporate membership package to further encourage corporates to join IEBA.
  5. Launch Certified Practitioner Designation: We are very excited about the launch of our new Certified Practitioner Designation. We found that the IEBA Diploma was perhaps somewhat too academic for people who had been in the industry for many years, and the creation of this program will provide a valuable educational alternative for this segment of our membership.

GBV: How exactly do you propose to accomplish all that, from a resources standpoint?

ND: Resourcing is always an issue, as we are a volunteer not-for-profit organization. All of the committee members have their day jobs, so the amount of time and effort any one individual can spend is limited: So we are always on the lookout for people to contribute! We do have some income from various sources (membership fees, attendance at the annual conference) and use some of our funds to purchase external help in running the conference and in maintaining and updating our website. We have had paid con-tractors for limited periods of time in the past and may well explore this in future as well if we identify the need and our budget permits it.

GBV: Would you go into some detail in terms of requirements for the Practitioner designation? How many hours does one need to study, what is the exam like and so forth?

ND: We created the Certified Practitioner designation because it felt like we needed something between having the full diploma and not having anything, and we wanted it available to people who were already professionals working in the space.

When it came to this grey area between no designation and a full diploma, we found that we had people—for instance, consider someone who has worked in the industry for five or 10 years—who wanted to contribute to IEBA and be recognized as someone with experience in the field. But it’s hard for someone who hasn’t gone to school for ten years to suddenly go back and study for an academic test—so this is one way to get recognition from the IEBA membership who are already working professionally, and it gives them the opportunity then to participate.

An added benefit is that one of the steps required to become a Certified Practitioner is speaking at a branch meeting or at the annual meeting in Brussels writing an article for the “Food for Thought” section of the IEBA newsletter. By making this a requirement we encourage participation from the broader group, which is vital because a volunteer organisation like ours lives and dies on participation.

GBV: Is the Certified Practitioner Designation going to be handled through PMI or exclusively through IEBA?

ND: IEBA will handle it exclusively. The diploma has academic standards attached to it like testing proctoring. Given the different scope of the Certified Practitioner designation, we feel this is something that we can manage ourselves.

GBV: Turning to the U.S. branch, can you comment on IEBA’s relationship with the American Benefits Council in the United States, two years after inception?

ND: In order to be able to operate in the U.S., IEBA needed to partner with an organisation of suitable size and scale. The American Benefits Council (ABC) was receiving more and more enquiries from its members on the subject of international employee benefits, and each organisation felt that a partnership would be mutually beneficial.

Our first joint meeting was held in Dallas in 2016, taking advantage of an ABC meeting bringing together representatives of US multinationals interested in international employee benefits, and we have since held one physical meeting a year as well as webcasts and conference calls. About 170 employees of ABC member companies are currently members of IEBA, by arrangement with the ABC, and several of them make the journey across the Atlantic to attend our annual conference in Brussels each year.

GBV: Are there any other associations that IEBA has relationships with, or will have?

ND: The Diploma in International Employee Benefits has been developed in the UK in conjunction with the Pensions Management Institute (PMI). Partnering with the PMI has many advantages for IEBA; for instance, thanks to this partnership, it is possible to sit the IEBA Diploma exams all over the world, by leveraging the PMI’s testing centre infrastructure.

GBV: IEBA is an association of people, not of corporations. Why is that, and do you see it changing in the future?

ND: As a volunteer, not for profit, non-commercial, non-partisan organization, it feels like the logical structure is to be an association of people. However, we do now have the option of corporate membership, whereby for a single payment any individual working for that employer can be considered a member of IEBA, although we do not offer this to providers and consultants.

GBV: Historically speaking, IEBA very much was a British institution; is that changing, and do you see Brexit as having any impact at all on IEBA?

ND: Given that 10 – 20 percent of our membership is in the UK, Brexit will certainly impact our members, but it won’t impact us as an organisation.

IEBA has become much more international over time, and certainly is much more international than when I first got involved. The chairperson before me was based in Germany, before him the chairperson was an Italian based in Brussels. I believe I am the first chairperson to be non-European.

GBV: So, what’s the first thing on your agenda as you step into the role? What do you plan to do in your first couple of months?

ND: One of the first things we will do is review feedback from the Annual conference, and work with the committee to firm up our plans for the remainder of the year.

GBV: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

ND: I am very proud to be part of, and now lead, this amazing organization. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

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