Gregory William Smith, executive director of the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association, was remembered as a tireless advocate for public pension fund participants.
Mr. Smith died unexpectedly Dec. 12 while on vacation in Hawaii with his family and friends, said Katie Kaufmanis, retirement association spokeswoman. He was 56.
Mr. Smith joined PERA as general counsel in February 2002 and took on the additional role of chief operating officer in 2009. He was appointed executive director in November 2012. Before joining PERA, Mr. Smith was PERA's private-sector legal counsel.
Meredith Williams, Denver-based executive director of the National Council on Teacher Retirement and Mr. Smith's predecessor at PERA, described Mr. Smith as "a giant in the public pension plan community."
"The endearing thing about Greg, he was like a chess master. He was always thinking four or five steps ahead of everyone in the room," Mr. Williams said in an interview. That characteristic made Mr. Smith a strong contributor to the public pension fund industry, which is facing challenges around funding and design, Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Williams said he considers Mr. Smith "one of the most significant figures in the profession in terms of understanding, appreciating and applying the fiduciary concept."
Helped by his background in law, "when Greg would be contemplating an approach for the pension plan, it always came down to that fiduciary duty to the members of the system. That was always his higher priority," Mr. Williams said.
Timothy M. O'Brien, PERA's board chairman, highlighted Mr. Smith's dedication to PERA participants in a Dec. 13 news release. "Colorado PERA and its membership have lost a true leader and dedicated servant to the public workforce. Those who knew Greg knew he loved his family, was a proud fourth-generation Coloradan, and was fully dedicated to PERA and its members."
Mr. Smith traversed Colorado to discuss PERA's operating results and pension legislation with participants, Mr. Williams said. "He was a wonderful communicator and people loved him," Mr. Williams said.
In the months before his death, Mr. Smith was involved in communication efforts around PERA's proposal to reduce its unfunded pension liabilities.
As a member of several national industry boards and speaker at industry events, including Pensions & Investments' Global Future of Retirement conference, Mr. Smith's influence extended beyond Colorado, colleagues said. He was a member of the National Association of Public Pension Attorneys; on the executive committee of the National Council on Teacher Retirement; a former board chairman for the National Institute on Retirement Security; and co-chairman for the Council of Institutional Investors.
"Greg has played a central and critical role in virtually all aspects of CII," said Ken Bertsch, CII's Washington-based executive director, in a Dec. 14 newsletter. "Greg's wise counsel and guidance to the CII board, staff and membership have been unmatched over the last decade and more. This includes his contributions to CII governance and the full range of policy matters, including regulatory, legal and financial reporting matters. His sudden loss is a shock, and poses a challenge for all of us to rise to his level of insight and wisdom."
He is survived by his wife, Laura; two sons, his mother and sister.
A celebration of Mr. Smith's life took place Dec. 20 in Cherry Hills Village, Colo.
Donations in remembrance of Mr. Smith may be made to the Rotary International Foundation. Mr. Smith served as president of the Denver Mile High Rotary Club in addition to his involvement in the public pension sector.