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A cyclist rides past the University of Toronto, which is one of three schools that the University Pension Plan currently services.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Launching any startup is hard work. Launching a $10.5-billion startup in the midst of a global pandemic, as Barbara Zvan is doing as chief executive of the newly formed University Pension Plan, means taking a whole new approach to building a business.

On July 1, Ms. Zvan and more than 40 newly recruited colleagues and consultants began running pension plans for 35,000 employees at three schools – the University of Toronto, Queen’s University and the University of Guelph. The schools launched the UPP during the COVID-19 pandemic, so staff were recruited virtually and have never met face to face. There’s a running joke in the executive team over who is taller than whom.

Over time, the UPP aspires to join the ranks of Canada’s largest public-sector plans by signing up more schools, as Ontario’s 21 universities oversee more that $25-billion in retirement savings. How does a CEO with lofty ambitions build a team without ever looking a new hire in the eye?

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Ms. Zvan, previously one of the first wave of employees hired at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in the 1990s, focused on hiring colleagues who had also created successful asset management businesses from scratch.

“Getting the culture right is incredibly important,” said Ms. Zvan, who rose from assistant portfolio manager to chief risk and strategy officer during 25 years at Teachers – a period that saw the fund’s assets grow from $19-billion to more than $200-billion.

The UPP tried to hire “Swiss Army knives,” said the CEO – employees who showed persistence and professionalism in similar startup situations. At the new plan, Ms. Zvan said: “Every day, people are being asked to do things that aren’t in their job descriptions. They need to find that exciting.”

The domestic talent pool is stocked with executives and managers who pioneered what’s known in pension plan circles as the Canadian model: people who created sophisticated investment organizations at public-sector plans such as Teachers, which only owned provincial government bonds in its early years. The UPP snapped up these veteran entrepreneurs.

The UPP’s chief financial officer and head of operations is Henry Kim, who was the third employee hired when the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board was created in 1999. Christine Chen, the UPP’s acting general counsel, is an ex-Fasken Martineau lawyer who spent 12 years advising the former pension plan for British coal miners as it evolved into a multiclient private equity firm.

The recruiting all played out in video calls. Ms. Zvan said one planned walk in a park with a potential employee was cancelled by a rainstorm, and the interviewing was successfully concluded online.

Job No. 1 for the new UPP team, Ms. Zvan said, is simply “delivering on the pension promise.” That means uniting smaller plans into a single pension plan “with talent that can innovate, along with making use of increased size and scale.”

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Like many large Canadian public-sector pension plans, the Toronto-based UPP is a jointly sponsored fund, with contributions coming from faculty associations and other unionized and non-unionized employees at the three universities. In what Ms. Zvan said is a welcome sign of support, Trent University’s faculty association recently agreed to move its pension plan into the UPP on Jan. 1, 2022.

By September, the UPP plans to hire its first chief investment officer and finish defining its investment strategy, a task that includes setting the fund’s asset mix and its risk management framework. The UPP has already signalled it plans to layer environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations into asset management.

In June, the fund hired former Addenda Capital sustainable investing expert Brian Minns as its managing director of responsible investing. Ms Zvan has deep experience at incorporating ESG considerations into investment decisions from her time at Teachers, along with volunteer work at organizations such as the Global Risk Institute and federal government’s Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance.

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