Michael Latimer sees OMERS through significant expansion and redefines what it means to retire

May 27, 2020
Michael Latimer

On a cold and brutally windy morning, in the days we were still in the office on a regular basis, we spoke to Michael about his most important takeaways from his time at OMERS.

That day, the roads were jammed, and car horns are were blaring outside OMERS offices in the heart of Toronto. Inside, looking out over the city, CEO Michael Latimer exuded warmth and calm. For OMERS members and employees, Latimer’s defining strength may be his ability to rise above the noise and carve a clear path towards a bright future. In a challenging investment climate, where volatility reigns, a long-term vision and a steady hand offer real value.

As one of Canada's largest defined-benefit pension plans, OMERS handles the retirement benefits of all active and retired Ontario municipal employees. The weight of this obligation – to safeguard the retirement income of approximately half a million Ontarians – has shaped every decision and action taken by Latimer since he took over as CEO in April 2014. After six years at the helm and more than 20 years at the organization, Latimer is retiring from OMERS at the end of May.

Along the halls of OMERS offices, there are photos of OMERS members everywhere. A large, colourful mosaic of the many faces of municipal employees hangs outside of Latimer’s door. From his office window, Michael has a clear view of Toronto’s City Hall, which represents OMERS largest active member base. It’s a daily reminder of the organization’s highest priority.

“It is paramount to our success that our people understand why they come to work every day, and that’s to serve our members,” he says. “Every one of our 3,000 employees is sensitive to the fact that we are the stewards and custodians of our members’ financial wellbeing, and they approach their work with the passion and care that comes with this humbling responsibility.”

Indeed, the OMERS defined-benefit pension is likely the largest asset that many members will ever own in their lifetime, their retirement and peace of mind on the line. Latimer believes the greatest challenge he faced as CEO was one familiar to his predecessors. How to shape OMERS to withstand the ever-increasing pace of change, ensuring the ongoing security and sustainability of the Plan for its members. With this backdrop, he prioritized three areas from the outset: people, results, and culture.

For Latimer, success starts with recruiting, retaining and nurturing the best people. “Great plans are simply aspirational if you don’t have the talent to see them through,” he says.

Latimer sought to create an environment that would encourage OMERS high-performing employees to continue building their careers with the company -- as well as attract outstanding talent to the organization. George Cooke, Chair of the Administration Corporation (AC) Board of Directors for OMERS, draws a connection between Latimer’s focus and the organization’s standing as an employer of choice.

“For Michael, numbers were important but people were even more important. A focus on talent development and continuing to foster and grow an inclusive workplace has ensured that our people are always fully engaged.  It has allowed us to attract and retain an incredibly talented and diverse workforce that has proven it can compete with anyone on the world stage.”

Continuing OMERS tradition of generating strong results was the second area that Latimer identified as necessary to meet the growing and future needs of members. Under Latimer’s leadership, OMERS increased its assets from an already sizeable $65 billion to more than $109 billion. OMERS achieved a solid annualized net return of 8.5% over this period, driven by a shift in asset mix, with $33 billion of capital moving into private investment asset classes during Latimer’s tenure, as well as entrance into markets well beyond Canada’s borders.

“Michael has pushed us to explore foreign markets and diversify our investments, tapping into a variety of new asset classes,” says Cooke. “Simultaneously, he has overseen the expansion of OMERS global footprint, opening offices across North America, Europe, in Singapore and Australia.”  

OMERS was recognized as a high-performer when Latimer took on the role of CEO, and over the past six years Michael further modernized the organization by deepening a strong talent pool and expanding its global reach. And, the results speak for themselves.

Latimer consolidated the OMERS brand and brought all its previously dispersed Toronto offices and divisions into one building, establishing an environment that emphasizes increased collaboration and innovation all in the name of a unified purpose.

“Every day, Michael reminds every OMERS employee of who they work for – the roughly 500,000 strong membership base in Ontario. If you’re a Plan member, I hope you know the sense of pride Michael has had in leading a team that spends every day in service to you,” said Cooke. 

The allegiance to members has become so deep-rooted that it has permeated all of the OMERS global offices. “Whether you’re talking to an OMERS employee in Toronto, Sydney, London or elsewhere in the world, you’re hearing the same message about our members and our care for their welfare, and that speaks to the strength of OMERS,” added Cooke.

As important as it was to Latimer to focus on people, results and culture, it was equally imperative to focus on his eventual successor. “When you step into the role of CEO, you, in partnership with the Board, need to start executing a succession plan from day one,” says Latimer. 

“Michael understands that it’s the role of the Board to appoint the next CEO but it’s the role of the CEO to help identify and prepare his or her successor. Promoting from within almost always leads to a more successful succession.  Michael’s support for and commitment to this process at OMERS was key to our decision to appoint Blake Hutcheson as new CEO,” says Cooke.

Hutcheson, who has worked with Latimer for more than a decade, believes the organization is well positioned to continue to grow and to expand the OMERS brand, the way Latimer and others have before him.

“What I’ve learned from Michael is the importance that a steady hand and kind heart have had in bringing OMERS to the enviable position we are in today – strong and ready to face the economic and societal challenges that lie ahead, as well as capitalize on the opportunities that continue to bring immense value to the lives of our members,” says Hutcheson.

One of those challenges facing the new leadership is how businesses must increasingly align creating economic value with building social value. But Latimer believes this plays right into the fabric of OMERS culture. “OMERS has always looked at financial success as simply a means to an end, and that’s to provide our members with the security and peace of mind so they can enjoy their retirement in whatever way is meaningful to them,” he says.

To Latimer, retirement is an old-fashioned word with old-fashioned ideals. “I’ve enjoyed watching how our members approach retirement differently than people did even a decade ago. Retirement today is about discovering life’s next adventures, whether that’s doing more to contribute to our communities, investing in our families or becoming agents of social change,” says Latimer.

Having secured his legacy, firmly placing the OMERS pension plan on the world stage, with incredible talent and a culture of great care, humility and passion for its members, Latimer can head into retirement with the same spirit of renewal that he hopes all Plan members do. As he says, “I’m retiring from here, not from life.”