YOU can take a man out of Mauritius, but perhaps you can never take Mauritius out of the man.
Aon Hewitt's global CEO of consulting, Yvan Legris, left his birthplace on the African island-nation when he was 19 on a bond-free government scholarship to study economics and actuarial science in London.
Actuarial science was, and still is, his passion, and pensions would later become his specialisation. Mr Legris wanted to be an actuary - someone who evaluates risks and designs ways to control their likelihood of happening and eventual impact - because at that time, there were no actuaries where he came from.
"I wanted to be the first actuary (in Mauritius) and I remember feeling a little bit cheated when someone qualified before me," he says with a chuckle.
His strong interest in pension programmes is plain as he discusses them. Specifically, this has to do with the art and science of financial modelling to project how much money a company needs to put into a pension pot in order to pay its retirees to maintain a certain standard of living for as long as they live.
"There are all sorts of unknowns such as life expectancies, interest rates, asset returns. That is really what fascinated me: how to use financial tools to manage and predict those things.
"You don't know what the exact answer is. You've done an approximation and you track things as they progress and as the pension plans mature, how they are doing versus what needs to be paid out. And then you make recommendations on whether companies should put more money in, or whether they should change how they invest the money."
In most countries, actuarial graduates have to join a professional institute and take exams for the next six years, on average.
Mr Legris doesn't have a practising certificate as an actuary any more because in his client-facing consultancy role today, he is not doing enough technical work to maintain that qualification. But he finds that the discipline has continued to help him in developing strategies and gives him credibility with his teams and clients.
Aon Hewitt designs and executes people programmes - such as for compensation, engagement, retirement and health benefits - for big organisations. The company, along with Mercer and Towers Watson, form the so-called "Big Three" in the human capital consulting world.
And Mr Legris' forte in pensions fits right into human resource (HR) programmes as people are living longer and want to retire better.
After graduating from university in 1985, Mr Legris joined Hewitt Associates (then called Bacon & Woodrow before it was acquired by Hewitt in 2002) in London. He joined as an actuary, eventually heading up their operations in the West Indies - his first management role at the age of 27.
But home was always at the back of his mind. After several other roles, he left Bacon & Woodrow's London operations to start a joint venture with Bacon & Woodrow in Mauritius.
"I went to the partners of the firm - I was a partner at the time - and put up a business case about setting up my own firm in Mauritius where I am from. They allowed me to, so I did, and today it's part of Aon. There is a little dot in the middle of the Indian Ocean which is the firm I started."
When Mr Legris went to Mauritius with his family, he had expected to spend the rest of his life on its sunny beaches.
But life seldom goes the way one imagined or planned. That experience had its fair share of challenges too: "I was doing actuarial work in a place where there were no actuarial firms. So I had to explain to clients what I could do for them.
"There was no established profession studying risk management, understanding properties, mortality, and doing financial projections to ensure companies that if they set up a pension plan or a life insurance policy, that they are building up enough funds to fulfil their promise."
The Mauritius unit started with just one staff - Mr Legris himself. By the time he decided to return to the UK to lead Hewitt's client development efforts there, the Mauritius unit had grown to a humble but sizeable 15-strong operation.
Now, that experience of starting up a business and growing it is something he keeps going back to when he meets his teams in different parts of the world.
"This morning, I met the South-east Asian leadership team - from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore - and some of them are encountering businesses of a few million dollars that want to know how to grow it to 10 million dollars.
"Some of what I shared with them is my experience of starting from scratch. In terms of leadership traits and attributes, I think when you are able to speak from experience, it gives you added credibility, because you've been there."
Mr Legris says he always felt a moral obligation to give something back to his country, even though there was no requirement for him to. The startup was just one thing he did.
He also contributed to a number of important developments in his field, such as the adoption of international accounting standards in areas like pensions where the local government hadn't been able to do because it lacked the right professionals.
"I also helped to establish the Financial Services Commission (FSC) in Mauritius, which is the umbrella body for financial regulation, very much based on the MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) here. In fact I studied the MAS and we brought a lot of its attributes into the FSC."
Come September, Mr Legris would have been at pretty much the same firm for his 30-year career to date.
Asked what has kept him at the same place for so long, he says it was the opportunity to do something new, exciting and different every few years.
He is right now just over three years in his current role, which in fact makes it one of his longest stints in any role over his career. The best way to develop people, he points out, is to give them a fresh challenge on a regular basis, preferably every three to four years.
Of course, the company has seen drastic changes and multiple mergers and acquisitions, going from 300 employees when it was Bacon & Woodrow in 1985, to the present-day juggernaut called Aon Hewitt with 35,000 consultants globally.
Aon Hewitt is also a unit of the New-York-listed Aon plc, an insurer and reinsurer perhaps best known for being emblazoned across the jerseys of Manchester United players from 2010 until last year. Chevrolet took over after that.
(As Mr Legris speaks, Antonio Valencia, Robin van Persie and Marcos Rojo stare out from two Manchester United standees behind him in the Aon Singapore office. But he would later admit that he supports Arsenal passionately, contrary to Aon's corporate persona, "which is a real struggle for me, but your football team is like your religion and you're not gonna change it".)
It was only quite recently in 2010 that Aon acquired Hewitt Associates in a cash-and-stock deal worth nearly US$5 billion. Mr Legris's first task in the merged entity was to integrate operations across 22 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In 2012, he was asked to step up to become global CEO of consulting.
Its clients tend to be larger organisations of a certain heft to warrant needing external help to manage their people programmes. They can be multinational companies, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) or semi-SOEs.
Today, Aon Hewitt serves more than 20,000 clients worldwide, serving 70 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies. It contributes over a third of Aon's total revenue. Last year, Aon Hewitt reaped US$4.3 billion in revenue and an adjusted operating income of US$728 million.
Singapore's best employers
Aon Hewitt also does in-depth studies on employers and champions, for example, best practices in talent management. In Singapore this year, it identified Tan Tock Seng Hospital as one of the best employers here. Another is Microsoft Singapore.
The public hospital's accolade is perhaps proof that good employer practices need not be elaborate or costly. Tan Tock Seng won because it managed to reverse its high attrition rate by conducting focus groups to understand its nurses' needs and work preferences, and then reworking the operating procedures in a way that would not compromise patient care.
Aon Hewitt also looks into how organisations develop leaders for the future to ensure smooth succession. In this area, DBS and Singtel ranked among the winners in South-east Asia last year.
"This is an important component for a top company, that there is an active development of a pipeline and long-term planning," says Mr Legris.
"This is so that there is active engagement from the top to identify the potential of different people in the management suite and how far they can go, in order to start developing them and giving them the right experience that will be useful when they actually get to the positions."
One hot-button question frequently asked of HR experts is: How (if not "how much") should CEOs be paid?
The best package would be one that puts some weight on both financial and non-financial aspects, so that you have the performance measured against the objectives, and then translated into remuneration, Mr Legris explains. "You also need to have a mix between short-term incentives for achievements of objectives in one year, versus longer-term performance which tends to be delivered through share awards."
Since the global financial crisis, Aon Hewitt and some other companies have also been advocating the need to include an element of clawback in CEOs' remuneration, in the event that some of the consequences of their decisions show up only years later, to the company's detriment.
"The clawback is actually a big step to prevent people from making excessively risky decisions that can benefit the short term but not the long term.
"We were looking for solutions to the volatility and high risk-taking that some short-term pay programmes encourage. Now, the clawback is becoming more and more the standard, particularly in financial services," Mr Legris notes.
Advent of big data
Another major development has been the advent of big data. Asked about its role in HR today, Mr Legris says: "It's going to take us beyond just measuring things and benchmarking them against the past, to having more predictive capabilities."
One of Aon's two Centres for Innovation and Analytics is sited in Singapore (the other being in Dublin). A lot of research work attempting to capture global trends based on Aon's surveys is analysed and distilled here and then used by its consultants globally.
"Some of it is outside my area of expertise, for example, developing mathematical models to forecast the impact of earthquakes on cities. So if you're insuring buildings, you'll know that if the epicentre was in this position, and the severity of the earthquake was 7.0 on the Richter scale, the impact on the grid would be this way and if you happen to have many properties in that area, this is what would happen to you. We have these sophisticated data and analyses which we're doing in Singapore."
Closer to his heart, the company has a comprehensive database on mortality for populations in places where there are pension provisions, such as in the UK and US. It has even distilled mortality trends by postal codes (representing different socioeconomic groups) in different countries. This data helps when it is advising on retirement plans.
Recruitment has also gone beyond the traditional interview to using empirical assessment tools to test jobseekers' ability, personality and problem-solving.
"This is especially important when selecting people for managerial positions. You want to understand what they are good at and what could be a 'derail-er' for them. If a situation gets out of hand, you try to predict how people would react in different situations," Mr Legris adds.
"These tests can also help companies calibrate their leadership and find out their employees' development needs. The tests tell you where people stand, so you can have programmes to help them build up their strengths and make up for some of their weaknesses."
Global CEO, Consulting
1962 Born in Mauritius
1982-85 BSc, Economics & Actuarial Science, The London School of Economics and Political Science
1985 Joined Hewitt (then Bacon & Woodrow) as an actuary in London, eventually heading up its operations in the West Indies
2005-2008 UK managing director, Hewitt Associates
2008-2010 President, Consulting, Hewitt Associates
2010-2012 CEO, UK & EMEA, Aon Hewitt
Since 2012 Global CEO, Consulting, Aon Hewitt