Harry Conaway, named last week as CEO of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, Washington, has a tough act to follow, but industry experts believe he will be up to the task.
He will be the non-profit's second chief executive in its 37-year history.
Mr. Conaway, who is a senior partner at Mercer and leader of its Washington Resource Group, will take on the role Jan. 1, succeeding Dallas Salisbury, who has led the research organization since its founding in 1978.
Industry experts, who earlier had said they were unsure of how EBRI would find a replacement for the only leadership it had ever known, praised the selection.
“I would say this is an inspired choice and congratulations are due both to Harry on affiliating with an outstanding organization and EBRI for acquiring Harry's unique talents,” said James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, in a telephone interview.
“He has over 30 years' experience in the employee benefits arena both in government service and the private sector. He's one of the most substantively knowledgeable people about employee benefits but also has tremendous strategic insight about employer-sponsored benefit plans,” Mr. Klein said.
Ian Lanoff, a principal with Groom Law Group in Washington, who was the first administrator of what is now the Employee Benefits Security Administration at the Department of Labor, called the appointment a “very positive” one.
“I think it's a testimonial to what Dallas Salisbury built from scratch that they could attract someone as qualified as Harry Conaway to replace him. ... He's first rate,” Mr. Lanoff said.
Mr. Conaway joined Mercer in 1989 after a six-year stint at the U.S. Treasury Department where he worked on tax policy, retirement and health legislation.
“I was lucky enough to join during a time when Mercer was looking to set up what became the Washington Resource Group,” Mr. Conaway said in a telephone interview. “Our focus has been developing and collecting and sharing Washington legal and technical information with consultants and clients.”
“We've been sort of a think tank (within Mercer) of legal and technical experts, put out memos, do training,” he said. “We have an external information service for clients and for others called Mercer Select.”
He has served on EBRI's board of trustees for more than 10 years, and on the executive committee for the past two years.
Mr. Conaway said he has been a longtime admirer of EBRI since becoming familiar with both Mr. Salisbury and the organization during his time with the Treasury Department, particularly its status as an unbiased, non-partisan source of research.
“Among the research organizations, that's a point of view, something that attracts me to EBRI strongly and it's something I would want to protect and obviously enhance,” Mr. Conaway said.
In a news release, Pamela French, chair of EBRI's board of trustees, said she believes Mr. Conaway “will hit the ground running” because of his experience at Mercer.
EBRI conducted a national search for the new CEO.
Mr. Salisbury, who announced in January his plans to step down, will become president emeritus and resident fellow of EBRI effective Jan. 1, 2016.
“Because Dallas left such an indelible mark on the benefits system, it requires someone of Harry's stature and capability to take EBRI to the next level and to address the challenges of the system for the future,” Mr. Klein said.
Added Joshua Gotbaum, former director of the Pensions Benefit Guaranty Corp. and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in an e-mail: “Sadly, the world of employee benefits is full of self-serving "analysis.' Dallas created EBRI to be the gold standard of information, and Harry is exceptionally well-qualified to carry it on.” n