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Our overall CEO of the Year could’ve just coasted on 24 years of accomplishments at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Instead, she took on a newly created fund with an aggressive net-zero plan that puts her at the vanguard of climate action

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Haille Arden/The Globe and Mail

On a hot and muggy Thursday this past summer, from deep within the sweltering concrete canyons of Toronto’s financial district, Barbara Zvan issued a stone-cold salvo.

On July 21, the University Pension Plan Ontario (UPP), which she leads, presented a report detailing its first operational year. With it came a new Climate Action Plan that committed the young organization to a net-zero portfolio by or before 2040—a full decade ahead of the 2050 deadline set out in the Paris Climate Agreement many in finance are using as a target—and promised to avoid investing in coal and other “companies that present significant climate risk.” Included were aggressive interim targets, detailed processes to encourage the decarbonization efforts of heavy emitters and a fleet of accountability metrics. It was an unexpectedly bold statement for a year-old plan to make, one that “unequivocally established [the UPP] as a climate leader in Canada’s pension sector,” according to Shift: Action for Pension Wealth and Planet Health, a charitable initiative dedicated to advancing sustainable pensions.

It was a little over a year since the UPP formally took responsibility for administering the pensions and investing the assets of three predecessor plans. And it was exactly two years, to the day, since Zvan formally became president and CEO.

In a tenure younger than the pandemic, Zvan built the operational infrastructure needed to support a new jointly sponsored defined-benefit pension plan that now supports more than 37,000 members, assembled an all-star team that now numbers more than 150 people, oversaw a seamless transition of assets now worth $12 billion, and successfully began an expansion campaign, all while the world reeled.

Good enough, right? Not for Zvan. “Barbara is always building; her brain operates five years down the line,” says former Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan CEO and current UPP trustee Ron Mock, who worked with Zvan for nearly 20 years at Teachers. “She likes to make sure she’s seeing where things are going, and she likes to be out in front.” The UPP was created to better protect the futures of its planholders, and all the money in the world won’t do any good if the planet is on fire, so Zvan’s decision to incorporate an aggressive climate plan into the fledgling fund’s already long to-do list came as no surprise to her former boss: “She makes everybody look a little on the lazy side.”

Zvan is a visionary with a workback schedule, a diligent leader who understands both why her organization must address the climate crisis and what it’s best equipped to do about it. With the pragmatism of an actuary, the acumen of a veteran exec and the passion of a woman who has not, with the march of time and pay grades, forgotten what pension work is fundamentally all about, she is forging the UPP as an agent of sustainability and offering a model for how to move disparate stakeholders toward a common good. Where other CEOs might struggle to place the dots, Zvan is already connecting them.

“I don’t sit well,” Zvan offers, with a warmly wry smile. “How’s that?”

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Few people are born with a passion for pensions, but some have the raw ingredients.

Zvan grew up in Stoney Creek, Ont., on the outskirts of Hamilton, in a family where education was valued and expected. A bright kid with a knack for numbers, she chose to study math at McMaster University in Hamilton, where she excelled but lacked a specific career goal. A chance conversation with a professor put it all into focus: Had she considered taking the actuarial exams? “I didn’t even know what an actuary did at that point,” Zvan laughs. “But it turned out to be a really great suggestion.” Actuarial science just made sense to her: It was math made practical, in a way that genuinely helped people. She aced the exams, landed a student job at Mercer, graduated and took a gig pricing currency options for a bank. That’s when an opportunity at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan caught her eye.

It was 1995. Teachers was only a few years old and less than one-fifth of its size today. Zvan had been following its progress in the paper: The risk-meets-investments nature of its work appealed to her, and she found herself drawn to the zeal of founding CEO (and fellow actuary) Claude Lamoureux. “He was really focused on the purpose of providing retirement security,” Zvan says. “It’s really common for people to talk about purpose today, right? But it wasn’t that common then. And that was quite attractive.”

She started a job as assistant portfolio manager, research and economics, investments, in the fall of that year, kicking off a nearly 25-year upward swing that saw her titles shorten and her responsibilities grow. A selective highlight reel: She developed, with former Teachers CIO Bob Bertram, the portfolio framework that inspired The Economist to dub Canadian public pension funds “maple revolutionaries.” After the global financial crisis of 2008, she led a six-year effort to retool the plan’s risk-measurement function. And after attending COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, she created the group that helped add an ESG lens to every investment decision Teachers made. “Where Barbara stood up and stood out at Teachers was her ability to operate in an environment that was not fully formed, where a lot of people questioned her because they couldn’t see it quite the same as she did,” says Mock, who joined Teachers in 2001 and was CEO from 2014 to 2019. “That takes a lot of skill and determination. It takes a lot of selling and getting believers on your side.”

When Mock announced his retirement from Teachers in 2019, many considered Zvan—at this point chief risk and strategy officer—a strong candidate for his replacement. The job instead went to fellow Teachers veteran Jo Taylor; weeks after he took over, Zvan resigned. “After 24 years somewhere, there comes a point where you say, ‘It’s time for a new challenge,’” she explains diplomatically. An inveterate workhorse, she was ready for a “nice, rich break” with her husband (also an actuary—they met at a Mercer student mixer, like a scene out of a risk-management romcom) and three teenage kids. She wanted to travel, to slow down and—eventually—evaluate what a career outside of Teachers, maybe even outside of pensions, might look like.

Her last day at Teachers was Feb. 28, 2020. Her break lasted about two weeks.

At the same time, a new pension plan for Ontario universities was finally hatching, long in gestation and—depending on who you talk to—long overdue.

For years, the fashion among institutes of higher education was to manage their own pension operations. The 2008 market crash battered that model; the University of Toronto’s pension portfolio posted investment losses of more than 29% the year of the financial crisis. In Ontario, the provincial government initially stepped in to help, but as purse strings tightened in subsequent years, many plans contemplated service cuts or higher premiums.

Union reps, faculty associations and others began to talk. “None of the options were really palatable,” says Alex McKinnon, a defined-benefit pension advocate and longtime research lead at United Steelworkers Canada who was involved in the conversations from the start. A jointly sponsored structure, in which employees and employers of several schools contributed equally to provide defined benefits to employees, seemed a more prosperous—and safer—opportunity.

It took a decade of stops and starts, regulatory and legislative hoops, and governance derring-do—”If I said there were some hurdles, that would be an understatement,” per McKinnon—to form what became known as the UPP, with the University of Toronto, the University of Guelph and Queen’s University, plus their associated unions and faculty associations, as founding participants. On Jan. 1, 2020, the plan officially came into being, legally administered by a 14-member board of trustees, appointed by the schools and their employees, and beholden to a clear deadline: to take over the disparate policies of participants by July 1, 2021. There was no staff. No office. Not even a bank account. And, most pressingly, no CEO.

The trustees had just engaged a search firm when COVID-19 arrived and upturned everything. The pandemic made recruiting a chief executive logistically tricky, so the trustees paused the search and pivoted to a more interim solution. “There was a lot of work to be done,” says Gale Rubenstein, a partner at Goodmans LLP and chair of the UPP’s board of trustees. “And Barb was right there.” Zvan was well known, having worked, sat on boards or acted on committees with several of the trustees. She was qualified, with a deep understanding of both defined-benefit plans and the jointly sponsored model. She was respected. And it just so happened she was available. So Rubenstein reached out with a simple plea. “I wasn’t asking for a commitment. I wasn’t making a commitment,” Rubenstein says. “I was just asking for help.”

Zvan wasn’t sure she wanted back into the pension game so soon. But with little else to do in lockdown life, and with the UPP’s needs so acute, she agreed to step in—on a voluntary, and temporary, basis. “And then, you know, I kind of caught the bug,” she says. “I got this notion that we could really make an impact. And I’m not afraid of a challenge.”

(Proof of that last point: Around this time, Zvan was tapped to lead a high-profile investigation into the poor performance of the Alberta Investment Management Corp., a.k.a. AIMCo, whose volatility trading strategy had recently yielded a $2.1-billion loss. A resulting report by the AIMCo board in June 2020 highlighted poor risk management processes and inadequate oversight, and advocated for a more collaborative culture between risk and investment departments.)

The UPP offered Zvan a chance to once again build a pension plan, as she had at Teachers—only this time from the ground up, with a blueprint of her own. Within a couple of months of volunteering, both she and the board wanted to make things permanent. In July, she agreed to become the UPP’s inaugural president and CEO.

Even in the relatively staid world of pensions, running a startup is intense work, a constant oscillation between right-now triage and blue-sky strategy. In this, an actuary’s skill set is invaluable.

Step one: Assemble a team. Zvan recruited a crew of “Swiss Army knives”—utility players energized by the challenge of getting something new off the ground, including CFO Henry Kim (who had worked at CPP Investments earlier in his career) and former Teachers colleague Jacqueline Beaurivage (whom Zvan coaxed out of retirement to take a contract as acting chief of staff). “Barb is a magnet for talent,” says Rubenstein. “There’s no inconsistency in her leadership on ESG and her commitment to defined-benefit plans. I think that’s enabled her to attract some really wonderful people.”

Step two: Build an on-ramp. With less than a year until the handover of assets, the team had to quickly develop processes and systems to consolidate a hodgepodge of private equity funds, bonds, stocks and more into a single portfolio—without disruption to planholders. (Zvan’s motto: No surprises.) Her team set three priorities every week and systematically worked through all of them, such that as the clock ticked over from June 30 to July 1, 2021, everything unfolded without a hiccup. On the UPP Zoom party that night, glasses were raised, congratulatory emojis shared. “We celebrated the moment,” Zvan says. “And then it was back to work.”

Which leads to step three: Make it green. Having become something of a sustainability evangelist within Teachers, Zvan was always going to lean hard on ESG at UPP. And she knew, generally, that her progressive-leaning university constituency expected as much. But she didn’t want to operate on a hunch. So she commissioned a survey of members, which confirmed that ESG mattered to the majority, and that within that, climate change was the top concern. She hosted town halls. She engaged with members of all groups, including unions and faculty associations, and affirmed members were aligned with her push for sustainability. It also built trust among plan members. “She’s not pompous, and she’s not arrogant,” says USW Canada’s McKinnon, today a UPP trustee. “I’ve never heard a bad word said about her.”

There was a clear-eyed business strategy at play in developing UPP’s approach to climate, too. “We did it for the sustainability of the pension plan,” Zvan reasons. “As an investor, you always want to position your portfolio ahead of the changes that need to occur. So we look through the lens of sustainability to avoid risk and maximize opportunities,” she says. “And what better time to ingrain it in the organization than from the get-go?”

A net-zero portfolio became the hero goal for the UPP. And the more Zvan thought about it, the more the 2050 target felt too far away. Why not 2040? Really, truly, why not? “Collectively, we haven’t been decarbonizing quickly enough,” she reasons. “People can argue about how fast or how slow, but just fundamentally, it’s not quick enough. So to stabilize things, we’re going to have to try to make up for that lost time.”

Finance professor Sean Cleary, who chairs the Institute for Sustainable Finance at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, confirms the UPP’s timeline is ambitious. But it’s not impossible, thanks to the details surrounding its execution. These include its “aggressive” interim targets to reduce the portfolio’s carbon footprint (by 16.5% by 2025, and 60% by 2030, from a 2021 baseline), and its commitment to report on progress on an annual basis via the rigorous standards of the UN-convened Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance. “Targets are targets,” Cleary explains, “but the process is also very important.”

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Here’s where Zvan’s extracurriculars come to bear. For the better part of a decade, she has augmented her day job with task forces, committees and boards devoted to figuring out the practicalities of using finance as a tool for sustainability. In 2018, she was one of four experts tapped for the federal government’s Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance, chaired by Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem (then dean of the Rotman School of Management); its 2019 report outlined 15 recommendations to make climate-friendly thinking “business-as-usual” in financial services. That spawned the Sustainable Finance Action Council (SFAC), where Zvan leads a taxonomy technical expert group; she also sits on the boards of the Institute for Sustainable Finance, the Global Risk Institute and the Responsible Investment Association. She chaired an advisory group of the multinational Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (now under the oversight of the International Sustainability Standards Board), whose members last year represented $52 trillion in assets, to establish the common definitions and standards needed for number crunchers to make better decisions at scale. This is the work—this painstaking, dry work—that fires Zvan up, because it bakes sustainability into the daily grind. “When you take something voluntary and put it under the accountants’ remit,” she says, her eyes alight, “things will change.”

More recently, Zvan helped launch Climate Engagement Canada (CEC), a coalition of more than 30 investment groups (including the UPP) and associations, which operates as a sort of CanCon spin on the global Climate Action 100+ network. The CEC’s goal is to use collective heft—its members manage more than $3 trillion in assets—to foster constructive decarbonization conversations with big emitters. It’s a power-in-numbers play: A company with a crummy eco-record might be able to rebuff pressure from one fund, but not from a group that might together own a quarter of its shares. “Engagements are most impactful when you do it together,” Zvan says. “So that’s how we’re approaching it.”

Zvan is a different sort of change agent. She’s not an activist or a provocateur; she’s not wild about speeches or photo ops. But her enthusiasm is impossible to deny. She speaks quickly, sometimes elliptically, with clear expertise, a sheepish grin punctuating endearingly wonkish asides. Every one of her past and present colleagues interviewed for this story lauded her passion for this work, and after a few hours in conversation, you feel it, too. It’s infectious.

It’s this quality that makes Zvan a “wonderful role model for a CEO,” according to former Co-operators Group CEO Kathy Bardswick, who now works with Zvan as chair of SFAC and sits as a UPP trustee. “Barb truly gets the ‘why,’ and then figures out the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’—and that’s what engages people around her,” Bardswick explains, citing an impressive list of examples from their work together. “Quite frankly, I don’t know where she gets the energy.”

Two and a half years into the job, Zvan shows no signs of slowing. The UPP is entering expansion mode: Earlier this year, Trent University, based in Peterborough, Ont., joined, and the organization is in talks with other schools. She continues her relentless committee and board work. She makes connections.

For Zvan, who has made future-proofing her life’s work, climate change is an existential threat, a risk that needs immediate mitigation. And so, back to the ongoing calculus of changemaking. “We have to start somewhere,” she explains. “So, how do you start? You start with the high-level principles and definitions. You get alignment. And then you move forward.”

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