HOOPP's Successful IT Journey?

Reno Bugiardini, HOOPP’s Senior VP, IT and Facilities Services, recently spoke with Business Chief magazine about HOOPP’s IT journey:
When Reno Bugiardini and his colleagues reached the culmination of a sweeping, innovative three-year IT strategy at the end of 2019, the disruption and impact to countless industries worldwide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was still a way off. That plan, which aligned with the broader five-year strategic plan at Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP), has driven vast change within the organisation.

It was, says Bugiardini, based around three fundamental areas of focus: a cloud-first approach, adopting Agile working methods, and ‘flattening’, through the creation of teams aligned to business groups, a previously hierarchical structure. “Our goal has always been to ensure that we are the single point of contact for the business, and that all departments feel they can come to us with any of their priorities. This is helped by the fact that I report directly to the CEO and am part of the senior executive team, which is not always the case for IT heads in organisations. By giving IT a seat at the executive table, HOOPP ensures that our digital strategy is aligned to the organisation’s strategy.”

That the strategy was a success, and positioned the organisation well for years to come, is something of which Bugiardini, who has been with the business since 2002, is rightly proud. That it also placed HOOPP in an enviably strong position to seamlessly navigate any potential disruption from COVID-19 is remarkable.

Bugiardini is a driven and highly experienced innovator and leader. He holds the position of Senior Vice President, Information Technology & Facilities Services at HOOPP, a role that sees him responsible for providing strategic vision and direction for IT and facilities services at the organisation.

HOOPP is a defined benefit pension plan that is tailored to the healthcare sector and provides financial security for industry workers in retirement. The organisation’s purpose, says Bugiardini, is to “deliver on the pension promise”. To facilitate this, the IT division has to serve the entire organisation and, most significantly two core functions: investment management and pension administration. The latter two are directly responsible for the investing and pension admin respectively, with IT empowering them to do so in the most effective way. “We’re a world-class IT organisation that exists to provide and enable innovative solutions and strategies to the entire business,” he explains, expanding on the core aspects of the three-year strategy he was tasked with leading. “The way in which we deliver those IT services over the last three years has absolutely evolved – it has to, so as to ensure we maintain the competitive advantage that differentiates us in the sector.

“We exist to deliver the very best solutions to our business partners, but if we don’t have a progressive, innovative IT organisation that’s impossible,” he continues. “Each of those three areas – cloud-first, Agile and the restructuring – gives us the ability to innovate, to be a flexible strategic partner and to develop quick proof of concepts for the business when it’s exploring new opportunities. Take being cloud-first as an example. Moving over 95% of our compute infrastructure to the cloud gives us a scalability and flexibility that just wouldn’t be feasible with a self-managed data centre, and it means we can explore and scale at minimal cost and meet business needs when required. Similarly, now that we’re an Agile development shop, we’re much closer to our business partners – aligned in teams so we can deliver solutions significantly faster and more accurately. The result is that our business is leveraging solutions sooner to meet their business needs and demands. We can leverage the advantages and opportunities of cloud to very quickly procure, compute and explore new ideas and complete tasks in two-week sprints whereas, previously, that just wouldn’t have been attainable for us.”

Naturally, achieving such a technological transformation relies on close collaboration with best-in-class partners. Bugiardini is keen to highlight two in particular: Thinkwise has been instrumental in our migration to the cloud and the decommissioning of our self-managed data centre,” he explains. “They provided consultation, leadership, and programme planning, which made for an overall far more seamless transition. Similarly, ObjectSharp has been a key partner in our digital transformation over the last six years, working embedded within HOOPP to identify and unlock value, solve complex problems, and coach our teams in the Agile delivery model.”

Of course, global events this year have created a landscape in which traditional approaches to business count for little. As an organisation HOOPP has responded rapidly, recognising the unprecedented change facing its members and launching a series of measures that address concerns and allow HOOPP to continue to deliver on its pension promise. This ability to continue providing the highest levels of service was greatly helped by the tireless work of Bugiardini and his team to deliver that digital strategy.

From the challenging transition to a significant remote working programme, through to continuing to serve the needs of the organisation, the scalable, flexible and newly restructured HOOPP business has allowed COVID-19 disruption to be dealt with in a remarkably seamless fashion, he recounts. “We’d been closely monitoring the crisis through our Business Continuity Management programme since early January, considering the impact on our organisation, and modifying operations accordingly. It was on 12 March that we took the biggest step yet – to move to work-from-home for the whole organisation. With more than 700 people, that’s not a small transition. The IT team had practiced before and, of course, we had contingency plans, but that they managed to do it successfully with few challenges in a 72-hour period borders on the heroic. The team did a great job that weekend and really demonstrated the importance of the work we have done.”

Indeed, the most noticeable challenge – a VPN performance issue – was rapidly dealt with. “We were able to procure additional hardware, we spun up another VPN, mobilised our IT team to test it and ensure functionality with minimal disruption to the business,” Bugiardini says. “In a traditional data centre or workspace that capability simply wouldn’t be possible. Similarly, if we didn’t have that Agile way of working and our teams organised the way we do, I don’t think we’d have been able to achieve what we did to accommodate the business in 72 hours.”

That success is testament to the effectiveness of Bugiardini’s digital vision for HOOPP. Indeed, so watertight were the deliverables of the strategy that he somewhat casually describes the process as “really just moving folks from the physical office to their homes". Because of the infrastructure in place many of the concerns being discussed about such a transition – cybersecurity, for example – just haven’t really been a concern for us”. On that point, it should be noted that the transition to the cloud in particular was fortuitous, affording Bugiardini and HOOPP a level of security that, instead of disruption, saw the company effectively in a ‘situation normal’ mode.

Technology aside, Bugiardini is a keen proponent of the benefit of flattening the structure within an IT team, a process he describes as critical to the way in which the organisation operates. “You don’t have red tape,” he says, “and that makes everything more simple. People and teams are empowered to make their own decisions and to take ownership of the results.” He refers back to the performance challenges experienced during that hectic first 72-hour period as a good example of this. “We had speed and the agility to do whatever we needed to. There were several automation and process tasks in that initial period that just happened; no one needed approval to carry out a task, or to ensure they were in sync with the broader thinking of the business. If we weren’t built that way we’d probably still be here debating whether we should deploy another VPN in the cloud or not.”

Of course, it would be foolish to state there has been no challenges. However, rather than being technology-related, these have been based around the sheer change management and shifting of workplace culture that every organisation has undoubtedly experienced. “Collaboration has always been a big part of how we work at HOOPP, particularly as a result of the teams we have created and the technologies that we can now leverage. Sure, moving to a working from home environment has meant a ramp up in terms of understanding the full capabilities of certain technologies like video conferencing tools, for example, but there’s positives to that shift too. It’s refreshing to ‘open up’ your personal life to your colleagues – whether that’s kids in the background or your dog barking during a meeting – and it’s refocused our perspective on working from home when we consider future IT and business strategies, for example.”

Having reached the culmination of the three-year plan at the end of last year, Bugiardini is naturally already focused on the next step of his digital vision. The changes brought about by COVID-19 have, he says, reorganised the prioritisation of some of the digital initiatives being considered, particularly around the greater automation of some processes, for example. But, it would seem the success afforded by the existing strategy calls for refinement rather than anything drastic. “Our ability to do business hasn’t really changed, we’re just not doing it in the office. There are so many businesses that have had to rethink their entire processes because they’ve previously failed to leverage technology to its fullest.

“On the contrary, we’ve been able to scale and to meet demand while delivering services to our members and pensioners – productivity hasn’t dropped at all,” he continues. “The market has been impacted by the volatility, but on our plan operations side, our service delivery levels to members actually improved. And, on that investment management aspect of the business, we were able to give our investment management staff full computing capability at home right away, and scalability when they need it through the cloud, to ensure they were able to adapt to the volatile markets and not miss out on any opportunities.”

Any digital transformation, even when it is facing unprecedented disruption and uncertainty, doesn’t stand still. Accordingly, Bugiardini is in the process of forming the next IT blueprint for HOOPP, which will be developed in collaboration with business partners. It will, he says, align with the organisation’s broader strategy and be built around delivering the high performance culture that is instilled in every part of HOOPP.

“This has certainly changed everything,” he explains. “It’s opened up the opportunity to hire the very best talent from around the world – there are fewer barriers to business now. From an IT perspective, it’s a new adventure that is now about us serving and supporting 700 internal clients remotely and we have the infrastructure and strategy in place to continue to absolutely succeed at that.”
Clearly, Reno Bugiardini, HOOPP’s Senior VP, IT and Facilities Services and his entire team have been very busy since the pandemic broke out and it looks like they have done a wonderful job assisting all of HOOPP's employees to migrate to work from home with the least disruption possible, a process he casually describes “really just moving folks from the physical office to their homes".

Technology is critical to HOOPP's success because the organization is very sophisticated in derivatives and leverages off technology to capture the best opportunities across public and private markets. It's also critical for plan benefits and admistration.

Luckily, Bugiardini is eminently qualified for the task at hand:

Now, IT departments have come a long way since my time working at pensions. They were always important but in a world of heightened digital competition, technology is critical to the survival and well-being of any large organization, and pensions are no different.

In fact, Canada's large pensions are technologically savvy and IT departments make up roughly half of their workforce.

In short, IT impacts all facets of a pension's operations: investment management, administration, cyber- security, human resources, communications, etc. You simply can't have a world class organization without a world class IT department, it's impossible.

COVID-19 brought to the forefront a lot of issues and tested the IT departments of many organizations. Some were ready, others weren't as prepared and it impacted performance.

But for pensions investing across public and private markets, leveraging technology is a lot broader than having a world class IT department, you need to also invest in emerging technologies and have world class data analytics teams that can process traditional and alternative data across all the investment teams and add value over the long run.

Last week, I discussed how CDPQ is leveraging technology and how its new CEO,  Charles Emond, appointed Alexandre Synnett to the new position of Executive Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer, in a new strategy aiming to leverage technology for performance, both in investment and risk management activities and in transforming the organization.

I applaud this new initiative and think any organization that doesn't have a broad and sound technology strategy will be left behind.

Anyway, I'm glad to see Canada's large pensions are taking technology very seriously, the current COVID crisis just highlights how important technology is for any organization.

In other related news, I noticed HOOPP just completed the disposition of German logistics real estate portfolio:
Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) completed the sale of multiple Luxembourg companies holding a 150,000 sqm logistics portfolio in several German cities, for a purchase price of approximately EUR 200 million. 

The purchaser in the transaction was Apeiron Capital Management, a European-based asset and investment management firm, in partnership with Midas International Asset Management. South Korean institutional investors ultimately funded the global transaction. The 150,000 sqm logistics portfolio consisted of three assets in important German logistics locations, including a sizeable fulfillment centre let to a well-known e-commerce specialist.

Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP represented HOOPP with a team led by Kate McGilvray (investment management/M&A), Thomas von Hahn (real estate), Ian Caines (tax), and which included Hani Migally, Mike Maodus and Ronald Zveiris.

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe supported the team as German counsel, Arendt & Medernach as Luxembourg counsel, and GvW Graf von Westphalen as tax counsel. JLL acted as HOOPP’s financial advisor.

A team of international advisors, which included Clifford Chance, KPMG, CBRE and Drees & Sommer, represented Apeiron.
Why would HOOPP sell logistics properties in Germany? I suspect because the price was right as demand for logistics properties is soaring following the pandemic.

HOOPP remains very committed to logistics properties in Canada and abroad, I'm sure of this even though I didn't ask its new CEO, Jeff Wendling, when we last spoke in March.

I also know Jeff Wendling and his senior team have been very busy with strategic plans and that was before the pandemic hit.

The reason behind HOOPP's long-term success is they plan very well for the long run, as demonstrated in the article above.

Below, Reno Bugiardini, HOOPP’s Senior VP, IT and Facilities Services, discusses COVID-19's impact on HOOPP with Fintech Magazine. Listen carefully to what he said, very heroic effort indeed!