Orla Ralston is the European Tax MD at OMERS, one of Canada's largest defined benefit pension plans. Orla speaks with Jay Sky, Senior Consultant at Pro-Tax about life at OMERS, her impressive career and the opportunities which have surfaced in the face of the pandemic.
Who is OMERS and what does the tax team look like?
We are a Canadian pension plan, serving over 500,000 pensioners based in Ontario that represent the retired employees of about 1000 municipalities such as school boards, libraries, police and fire departments. Part of what we do is to make investments that fund sustainable, meaningful pensions over the long term. Our asset classes include infrastructure, private equity (including ventures), real estate and capital markets.
Our tax team is truly global and covers a wide range of activity. The Global Head of Tax is based in Toronto and our team is divided across the Americas, Europe and APAC and by function: investment tax; tax for the enterprise; and, tax compliance. Of course, none of these areas are mutually exclusive, so inevitably there is a lot of collaboration across the regional and functional teams.
What does your role as MD of Investment Tax include, and what leadership roles do you play?
I support our European businesses from a tax perspective on their investments – so I oversee European and UK-based tax professionals who focus on infrastructure, PE, real estate and associated European-wide issues. I also have a broader leadership role within the infrastructure business (beyond tax alone).
One of the great things about OMERS is that we recognise each of us has something to offer. In my case, I have always believed that to do well in tax, you really need to engage with the investment team and understand their strategy, drivers, and the commercial rationale behind everything they do. This line of thinking has allowed me to bring another dimension to the leadership team and an element of influence across the London office.
You have had an impressive career to date, having held positions in a Magic Circle law firm and a top tier investment bank. How would you compare life at OMERS to these earlier experiences?
I joined Slaughter and May as a qualified Solicitor and learned my craft in practice. This involved learning the technical aspects of tax law while working on many different types of transactions, acting for multiple clients. I applied that experience in-house later when I worked at Goldman Sachs, and here - while I had the opportunity to make this role my own - there was already an established tax team within which I was able to develop my own role Although my initial role at GS was to support the real estate investment business (part of the Merchant Banking Division), I saw gaps and opportunities to support a newly created infrastructure business, and then, more latterly, their private equity and debt funds. This was a great experience and how I discovered and learned what it is to be an in-house tax lawyer, and, in particular, how to be commercial in that role.
After more than 11 years at GS I had seen a lot of deal activity and was able to bring that experience to OMERS. When I joined OMERS, I was the first European tax team member (in Infrastructure & PE). What I continue to enjoy is the level of integration into the deal teams and the opportunity to have a broader role; understanding and working with the businesses strategically, not purely from a tax perspective.
What made you join OMERS initially, and what might be surprising about the way the business operates?
I had not been looking to leave my previous role at GS but OMERS clearly did something to convince me! First and foremost, it was the people. The calibre, intellect and friendliness of everyone I met at OMERS was appealing. Second the ‘pension promise’ was (and still is) a big draw for me. I loved every minute of my career before OMERS too – but knowing that your efforts enable people to retire with a decent pension is of massive importance, and I’m able to be a part of that. Pension funds might sometimes be considered less active but OMERS has always been and continues to be very active with direct investment and a focus on asset management and value creation at the core of its investment strategy. The degree of sophistication at OMERS allows us to be very hands-on, which always keeps things interesting.
How would you describe OMERS’ approach to diversity and inclusiveness?
We have always been proactive in this area. There are several employee resource groups at OMERS, but we see diversity in so many other ways too. In London, what I love is that you will hear countless languages around the office; we have a truly global team. We also sponsor events and initiatives which facilitate social change: in 2020 for example our CFO led an event for International Coming Out Day in partnership with OTPP and CIBC, and from London we were joined by Aisha Thomas, Founder of Representation Matters Ltd, for an event for Black History Month - both of these were very powerful. Inevitably, this conversation is a continuing one, but there is certainly a healthy dialogue on this.
What has the response to coronavirus been like at OMERS, and what opportunities have surfaced?
Our leadership has been very decisive and provided clear direction from the start. First and foremost, the priority was to keep our people safe, and we’ve seen that throughout all levels of the organisation – supported by a lot of communication from our CEO with whom I feel more connected perhaps than ever before. Our IT team enabled a seamless transition to work from home literally overnight, which has allowed among other things a level playing field in terms of connectivity – we’re all in a box on a screen. We have the same means to interact, whether we’re on different sides of the same globe, or different sides of the same office. We can’t replace the human element of interaction of course, but we can do the virtual interactions well and keep a transparent and proactive approach. Now we are reaching out to our people for their views on how we can continue what have been some of the more positive aspects of these changes.
OMERS has a strong record of employee retention. What is it that motivates people to come to work each day?
I think the pension promise has a lot to do with this – it’s not something we sit and talk about all day long, but there is this feeling of a common goal between us. In the tax team at OMERS, no two days are the same – there is just so much variety in what we do. Having just 4 of us in Europe means we cover a real breadth between us. We also have real autonomy and ownership. The organisation encourages an almost entrepreneurial attitude: ‘if you see something that makes sense to do, then go ahead and do it, show us why it makes sense’.
You mentioned that perhaps one of the greatest assets at OMERS are the people – but also that this group is very diverse. So which type of person will fit into that team best?
We encourage the mentality that nobody should underestimate what they can achieve and should not put themselves into a box. We are a team of people who want to make a difference – and while doing so, you can learn so much about investing, our assets, our portfolio. We invest in significant companies which matter in tangible terms – often providing essential services. That’s the joy of infrastructure for me personally. If you are curious, industrious and want to be part of a group who like working and having fun together, you might be a good fit for our team.