Title: Principal Age: 39

John Galarneault, a new principal in the Minneapolis office of Mercer, a global human resource consulting company, is looking to help Twin Cities employers manage an issue that's front-and-center to them and their employees -- retirement.

Galarneault said he intends to target the largest employers, those with more than 1,500 employees, on behalf of Mercer's retirement, risk and finance business. "That's why I'm being brought on board; that's where my experience and the vast majority of my expertise is," Galarneault said of pursuing business with what typically are Fortune 1000 companies.

Those companies have the largest retirement plans and, therefore, face the largest risks. The good news, Galarneault said, is that they're also in the best position to manage that risk. Since the financial crisis hit in 2008, the risks facing 401(k) accounts and pension plans also have been more evident to employees.

"You have to somehow meld those two together, where it's important to your employees as an attraction and retention tool but you need to manage it differently than you did in the past," Galarneault said.

Galarneault, who has a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics from St. Olaf College, worked at Aon Hewitt for 17 years, most recently as a senior actuarial consultant in the Minneapolis office, where he helped build the firm's global benefits practice.

Managing pension plans has gotten more challenging since the financial meltdown: a Mercer report in July found that the total deficit in pension plans sponsored by S&P 500 companies had grown by $59 billion in the first half of 2012 to $543 billion.

Deficits have gotten a bit worse since then, said Galarneault, adding that nine of the 10 companies he works with face a pension-plan deficit. Companies can respond, Galarneault said, by taking steps such as freezing pension plans, reducing future benefit levels, contributing cash from reserves or borrowing money to fund the plan, a popular move given today's low interest rates.

QWhat appealed to you about the opportunity with Mercer?

AThey're the premier human resource consulting firm, certainly in the retirement space. They have the best thinking in that space and the most energy around it.

QHow did you become an actuary?

AActuary appealed to me in that it was a way to use math and my math skills but it's really about doing real-world problems at the same time. It wasn't solving formulas and writing papers as an academic. At the same time, it wasn't as automated as some other financial careers. I also like the facet of consulting, working on a range of problems with different people.

QYou run into a few stereotypes, though?

APeople assume that actuaries are people wearing pocket protectors and playing computer games all day long. There are actuaries who do exactly that. But there are also actuaries who are involved more on the strategic side. Rather than just creating numbers and spreadsheets, what I do and what I think we do well at Mercer is helping people understand those numbers and how to pull the different levers to manage that well.