Air Products laments Europe's sluggish union
With employees across 13 different European countries, Air Products has clear ideas about the pan-European strategy it would like to adopt but is frustrated by the lack of political will in Europe.
European pensions manager Richard Blamey says: It is easy to get frustrated with the failure to unify things across Europe. We seem to have been talking about it for a long time and we don't seem to have made much progress."
Blamey also cautions companies about what he sees as a trend across Europe of the recession of the state from pensions provision. "Countries are saying: 'We can't afford these provisions anymore.' Further pressure is being placed upon state expenditure by Maastricht. Companies have to be on the alert that they are not picking up the tab."
However, he also concedes that with changes to pensions often having an impact only in the long term it is understandable that politicians do not always prioritise reform.
Another reform that he is firmly in favour of is the single European currency. This is because of its potential to simplify final retirement benefits for employees who, if they are particularly mobile, could be receiving pension payments in several currencies when they retire.
Despite the associated frustrations, the European dimension is one of the reasons he joined Air Products from Occidental Petroleum in 1988. He operates from its European centre in Walton-on-Thames, outside London. The US-owned firm has some 5,200 employees in Europe as a whole with total European pension assets valued at $375m.
Blamey's job involves running all pension benefit programmes including design, negotiating with the insurance companies and overseeing the investment managers. He also ensures that plans adhere to GAAP standards. In the UK he shares responsibility for the investment process with the treasury department and the fund trustees. He also acts in what he describes as a "pastoral role", providing financial counselling for employees, retirees and for the bereaved.
He adds: "It is also rewarding on a macro level where I know that I can have an impact on the company's bottom line by making sure we have used the most efficient methods and also by going out and talking to insurance companies and investment managers."
Blamey says that company strategy involves trying to ensure the competitiveness of its benefit arrangements in all countries and to some extent making benefits similar across all countries, but he admits this is difficult.
Company schemes are largely defined benefit, with certain specific exceptions. In Spain the fiscal disincentives mean that the optimum plan is a defined contribution one. In Ireland, employees were on a targeted money purchase scheme but this had been unsatisfactory. Now the company provides a basic defined benefit scheme, with a top-up money purchase scheme for employees who want to contribute overtime earnings, matched by the company, gained from shift working. A similar additional savings scheme has been introduced in the Netherlands.
In the investment area, the company uses the CAPS benchmark for its British plan. With its continental insured schemes this is less of a priority but arrangements are still subject to scrutiny.
Blamey says: "We don't actively switch companies but we would be prepared to switch if we weren't getting the right deal. In the Netherlands we have been with the same insurance company for 16 years and we had very hard and long discussions with them before deciding to remain with them at the end of last year."
Air Products maintains downward pressure on costs through multinational pooling - one area where the company can direct an international strategy - although Blamey points out that pooling is often neglected by his peers. The company uses IGP, the Boston-based network, and the Swiss Life network. He explains: "Where you are pooling insurance it is possible to insure people at the lowest possible cost. Also if we have paid more money into a particular country, we then get a rebate centrally. You get economies of scale, in countries where you have relatively few people, but because the insurance company knows that as a group you are doing a lot of business you tend to get a better service. It has been very important to us financially."
Generally, the company has been unable to implement a common investment strategy. He would like to co-mingle funds for Dutch and Belgium pension funds, which are similar to UK pension fund assets, and to do the same for France and Germany but says that the German book reserve system and what he describes as the French quasi-state system make this almost impossible.
He adds: "We would love to set up a common investment strand for all 13 countries." He expresses disappointment at the failure of the third life directive and is similarly concerned at the much-trumpeted pension fund pooling vehicles, worried about the lack of incentives to other governments to agree to run such funds through London. "There are political, fiscal and social security obstacles. It is almost like a different agenda in each country." This brings him to the single European currency.
"Change is dependent upon political will across all countries," he says. "I think that if we go ahead with the common European currency it will be a major step forward. Other changes will not automatically follow, but then everyone can at least see the direction we are going."
Its introduction will also help on the benefits side particularly for senior employees. Air Products is careful to explain the implications of any move for pensions provision, with employees often compelled by fiscal regulations to move out of their home arrangement, although the fact that social security payments need only be paid in one country in Europe has improved the situation.
This American-owned company with its extensive European infrastructure clearly harbours few reservations about European integration in the pensions and social security field. John Lappin"