Relocation postcards

Three expatriates who travelled to New Zealand, Switzerland and Singapore discuss their experience as relocated employees
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/02/2008

Ever wonder how an employee views a relocation? Canadian HR Reporter talked to three people who moved overseas for work to find out how the experience went and what lessons they learned.

David Kerrigan
Airport services manager

When David Kerrigan moved to New Zealand in June 2007, he and his wife were ready for a change, having spent their whole lives in Toronto.

“The timing seemed right to try an adventure,” he says. “The new job was definitely out of my comfort zone so that was a bit of an unknown.”

Previously a general manager for Terminal 3 with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, he moved to the head office of cargo-handling company Glidepath in Auckland to become the airport services manager. While the new job has global responsibilities, it’s tough to call it a promotion, he says, as the pay is less.

“Money was a ‘con’ when I was considering the move, but the other ‘pros’ outweighed it,” he says.

Before heading off to the new position, Kerrigan had a good sense of what to expect because he knew some New Zealanders in Toronto and the only preparation needed were applications and medicals. The transition was easy because there was no language barrier — although the New Zealand accent can be thick at times — and the food is essentially the same, he says.

Glidepath provided an immigration consultant and helped with accommodation until a permanent residence was found. It also helped set up banking and credit cards. The company also offered an induction program to introduce Kerrigan to staff, policies and procedures.

He and his wife ended up renting a house, as house prices in New Zealand are high, and they kept their house in Caledon, Ont., which is occupied by their children.

“Being new in the country you don’t have a credit rating so if you could get a mortgage, you would need a good down payment. Besides that, mortgage rates were nudging 10 per cent here,” he says. “So as much as there are beautiful homes to buy, they are too expensive.”

And his new position is still somewhat temporary — he signed on for two years and is unsure of how long he’ll stay.

“I didn’t think of this as a new home, just an extended vacation or work assignment,” he says. “If I leave the company within two years, I need to pay back all the costs the company paid to get me here.”

The greatest disadvantage to a relocation is being so far from family and friends, says Kerrigan. However, the biggest plus is being able to see parts of the world few people in Canada get to see.

Looking back, Kerrigan wishes he had known more about the costs of housing and accommodation, which were “a bit of a shock.” And a few of the items taken for granted back home are not necessarily the same overseas, such as over-the-counter drugs, which can be expensive and unavailable in bulk sizes. Relocating employees should make sure to bring proof of their driving record so insurance companies don’t treat them as new drivers, he says, and people should get their Canadian residency established.

“It’ll make a difference come tax time — I’m still waiting for my refund after six months.”

David Zemans
Managing partner, Singapore office
Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy

David Zemans and his wife moved from Toronto to Singapore in 1996 and they never came back (aside from vacations to visit family). Now a managing partner at the Singapore office of the law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he says he moved to the city-state because he loves Asia and welcomed the opportunity “to work on large, complicated, highly structured and innovative cross-border transactions.”

He was originally an associate at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in Toronto before working for three months at Milbank in New York. The stint in the United States was important for building business relationships and bridges that have been invaluable, he says.

“Unlike some businesses, a law firm is simply a bunch of people who have decided to work together. The better we collaborate and work together towards a common goal, the more successful we will be both individually and as a whole.”

The move to Singapore was not necessarily a promotion, though he assumed more responsibility and took on a very different type of position. Before making the move, Zemans spent several months in Singapore, so he says he had realistic expectations about the change.

“I knew the job would be very interesting but involve hard work with long hours,” he says.

Milbank provided support, such as a home search and orientation on taxes and visas, but most people in the firm are self-starters anyway, he says, and they understand it is necessary for someone to initiate most of these things on his own. The same was true for the new job, as there was limited orientation.

“Most of the people accepted for this position are generally quite adaptable and sensitive to the different cultures and customs of the different countries they are going to be asked to work in,” says Zemans, who manages to get by speaking English as it is a primary language in many of the countries he covers.

For the first four years, he and his wife (who found work at another law firm) lived in a shophouse near Little India, “which was wonderful,” he says. “We felt part of a local community and were within 15 minutes of the business district and the old part of Singapore.”

The people and culture were much more diverse than he imagined, he says, and, since Singapore is a regional hub, Zemans spends a great deal of time traveling to neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, India, China and Vietnam.

“It’s been a unique and fascinating experience. It has been a period of dramatic and unprecedented change for the region. Many of the old regimes have been replaced with democratic governments and the business and economic growth has been very exciting to be a part of.”

For those interested in following in his footsteps, he offers the following advice: “Come with an open mind, be prepared for the unexpected and never rule anything out.”

Martin McInally
McInally & Associates

With his wife, eight-month-old child and two dogs in tow, Martin McInally headed off to Basel, Switzerland, about six years ago. He was excited to take on a global position and was rewarded for his efforts. However, his return to Canada has been less fulfilling, he says.

McInally was the national manager of governmental relations and corporation communications for pharmaceutical company Roche Canada and he transferred to the head office of Roche Pharmaceuticals in Basel to become an international communications manager for almost three years. (He then took a job with another pharmaceutical company, Novartis, also in Basel, for a further two years).

Roche provided a “gold-plated” relocation package that included help with moving, finding housing, completing paperwork and opening bank accounts. But this kind of approach is “disappearing like the dodo,” he says.

“To get that kind of lock-step, ironclad agreement where you are paid in Canadian currency, by a Canadian operation, with a cost-of-living allowance and expenses such as car, housing and education for children picked up by the company, those are disappearing quickly because the expense is huge.”

The move happened so quickly that McInally didn’t manage to learn much German, though lessons were offered by Roche in Basel. (German is the most predominant language in Switzerland, and one of four official languages along with French, Italian and Rumantsch.)

“It was too much for me with the combination of enormous stress because, let’s face it, international companies don’t move you for the good life, they’re moving you over and you’re expected to work hard and long,” he says. “So I said, ‘I’m happy enough if I can get by with English’ and in most of Europe, it’s not an issue.’”

His wife did learn German and this meant an easier integration into a Swiss life.

“Language is extremely important and much more important for the person who is at home than the person in the office,” says McInally. “We made a conscious decision to move to a small farming village that was not an expat enclave. Quite literally in Basel, in two or three sections, you’d think you’re in southeast London — the conversations fly around about the lack of good cheddar cheese.”

McInally suggests people who relocate really make an effort to integrate into the culture.

“You’ve really got to make it your own when you get there,” he says.

And they should try to gain the best understanding of expenses beforehand by asking the right questions during negotiations with the employer and diving deep into the economics of the area.

“You sit down and go over all the diagrams and charts that talk about the cost of living and you see the formulas and work it out, but rarely have I found that’s been an accurate representation. The expenses we had in Switzerland were pretty enormous. Granted, on the surface, the salaries look huge — this is a country where the minimum wage is $22 per hour or more — but the cost of living is pretty high. Once we factored in our house, the health insurance, all of the costs of running the house — it’s a huge chunk of change.”

And, lastly, be warned the return to Canada might not go as planned. McInally came back in January and he has had trouble finding a suitable job, so he and his family are considering a return to Switzerland.

“Canadian businesses don’t understand what a true global employee is,” he says. “You gain a level of experience that you can clearly see is going to be vital for Canadian business — from not-for-profit to hospitals to government to the energy field — that folks with this type of knowledge can’t learn in an MBA school. It’s enormously frustrating. Why come back?”

However, career-wise, McInally says he was able to make a “huge leap” in Switzerland compared to where he would be now if he stayed in Canada.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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