Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid researches multinational pooling

When Big Bad Boss asks me to research insurance pools, I am quite depressed. It doesn’t get much more boring than that: looking at liability-driven investments, maybe, and perhaps examining mortality rates comes close, but pooling is certainly up there with the dullest.

However, I have to look at these things creatively, and as most of the players are in Belgium, perhaps I can engineer a visit as part of the project.

Confessions of a benefits manager

Big Bad Boss wouldn’t normally go for that, because suppliers must come to us, not us to them. But, given we are having complaints from our own Belgium office about their new benefits plan, I can offer to sort both things out at the same time. This makes Big Bad Boss feel we are being super-efficient and cost-effective. He just loves that.

Not that I particularly like Belgium. We only seem to hear about it on the news when the EU passes some new legislation. Nothing else of note seems to happen there. Still, the streets are clean and it does nice chips. Above all, I do fancy a trip.

Lazy Susan immediately wants to come too, until she realises that ‘pools’ refer to insurance rather than the kind found in spas. Bless. I can’t see that she would be much help, even if I could get another flight signed off.

You might be wondering why a company our size doesn’t have pooling in place already. Well, we did have, but every year we are under pressure to reduce costs, and all our plans in the pool were undercut by someone outside the pool, so the pool became more of a small puddle. I suspect that’s where we’ll end up again if we reintroduce one now, but these projects come in cycles and at least it keeps me employed.

Beauty parade

I use our Belgium office as a base, and get three pooling providers in to present. The first organisation, let’s call it International Pool People, puts on a pretty good show. It even explains the other players in the market and what each has to offer. This seems all very fair and open.

It shows a slide explaining the pooling concept, and how surplus from claims can be offset against losses. This is teaching me to suck eggs, but I am not offended. I’d prefer that to someone showing me a bunch of slides I don’t understand.

Mind you, privately, I do struggle working out where the money comes from in pooling. Insurers would not join a pool if they thought they would lose out, pooling providers would not exist if they didn’t make money, and we wouldn’t use them if we didn’t save money. So where does the money come from? It’s just a thought; I wouldn’t say it out loud.

The second organisation, which seems to work on exactly the same lines as the first, delivers an almost identical presentation. I wonder if they compared notes beforehand. However, the presenter is not nearly so neutral about his competitors. In fact, he spreads quite a bit of industry gossip about them, and is positively scaremongering about their financial positions.

The third, let’s call it SoRich, is a little different in that it owns many of the organisations in the pool. Otherwise, it has exactly the same offering.

This leaves me to think I should set up a pool for insurance pools, so their surpluses can be offset against losses. I could be rich.

After an evening of frites, followed by a waffle and a wander round the comic museum, the next day I am ready to meet the local HR manager about the local plans. They have a few simple options, which I know are perfectly acceptable compared to the market, but I get the usual moan about Belgian taxes.

Local benefits

I am sure they are right. We could offer a full-blown flex scheme and people could save a bit more tax, but I can’t get the outlay signed off for such a small office, so that’s that. I note the numbers and promise to try again.

Predictably, the MD and the FD both come to bend my ear about the same thing. I’m sure they think I am some nasty HR person trying to put obstacles in their way for fun. Why would I do that? This is why I don’t always enjoy site visits as much as you might think.

Back home, I need to put together a proposal for Big Bad Boss. I sift through the pooling documents worriedly. I feel like I have a big exclamation mark over my head, like the Belgian comic strip character TinTin.

Appointing a pooling firm

I rule out the gossipy firm because I don’t fancy working with it, and of the others, we still have one plan insured with the first organisation, so it is selected. Did I need to go to Belgium and meet everybody to reach that conclusion? Of course not, but the key to success is to appear to be thorough.

I know that, despite putting this new focus on the pool, we won’t choose any of the insurers in it unless they are competitively priced anyway. In fact, the whole exercise is just something for Big Bad Boss to brag about to the Higher Beings. That just about sums up my whole job.

I go in to tell Big Bad Boss my findings, but then I remember he has gone to the US to talk to a supplier. I don’t feel so guilty about Belgium now.

Next time…Candid is not so PC about PCs.