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Amid high profits, Liberty Mutual cuts benefits

In July, Liberty Mutual opened its new $300 million Back Bay office tower, built in part with tax breaks and credits worth more than $46 million.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

In July, Liberty Mutual opened its new $300 million Back Bay office tower, built in part with tax breaks and credits worth more than $46 million.

Liberty Mutual is cutting back contributions to retirement plans and other benefits for its employees, just a year after a public uproar over lavish pay and perks for top executives of the Boston insurer.

Under the new plan, the company will reduce the maximum sum it provides to match workers’ savings in their 401(k) plans to 6 percent from 7 percent. The insurer also will change its traditional pension plan to a more modest one that saves the company money. In addition, it will cut back insurance coverage for retirees.

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In a brochure for employees that describes the changes, Liberty Mutual said, “the retirement benefits we currently offer are not in line with market practice.” The company said it compared its benefits with those offered by 25 similar financial companies.

The cuts come on the heels of former chief executive Edmund F. “Ted” Kelly’s retirement, capping a four-year period in which he earned $200 million, making him one of the highest-paid executives in the country. Kelly retained his private-jet privileges until he stepped down as chairman in late June. The Globe has reported that he is receiving an annual pension of about $3.3 million.

Against that backdrop, more than 38,000 rank-and-file employees are now digesting the prospect of slimmer benefits.

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“I think anyone’s individual reaction will be unique,’’ Mark Touhey, manager of compensation and benefits at Liberty Mutual, said in an interview. “There may be some that try to connect those two.”

Touhey said pay plans for employees and top executives “are based on a practice of benchmarking compensation and benefits packages in a robust way, with other companies of similar size and complexity, as we try to compete for talent at all levels of our organization.”

Liberty Mutual officials declined to say how much money the company would save by reducing benefits.

Globe File/2001

Former Liberty Mutual chief executive Edmund F. “Ted” Kelly.

Many companies trimmed or halted 401(k) matches during the financial downturn, but restored them as the economy improved. Liberty Mutual appears to be bucking that trend, by making plans to cut benefits starting in January — even as it reports large profits.

Currently, Liberty Mutual matches employee contributions to the 401(k) plan up to 3.5 percent and adds as much as 3.5 percent more, based on the company’s performance. Under the reduced match, employees can get 3 percent, with an additional 3 percent if the company meets its targets.

Liberty Mutual acknowledges that the benefit is declining, but the company brochure calls it “straightforward” and “competitive with our peers.”

At the same time, the insurer will cut back its traditional pension benefit, a move many large companies have made to cap their long-term pension liabilities. Instead of expecting a certain annual benefit based on years of service over a 35-year career, employees will receive 4.5 percent of their pay each month in a pension account. That money will earn interest at the rate of the 30-year Treasury bond, which is currently paying 3.77 percent.

“That’s a pretty low rate,’’ said Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “That’s not going to get anybody anywhere.”

Increasingly, Munnell said, companies do not want to shoulder the risk associated with conventional pension plans.

At Liberty, employees will retain the pension benefits they have already accrued and start accumulating the new benefit in 2014. For new employees who start next year, the cash-balance plan has the advantage of being portable, meaning those who stay for at least three years can roll the funds into their own Individual Retirement Accounts.

The insurer is not alone in shifting away from traditional pensions. As of last year, 30 percent of Fortune 100 companies offered such a plan, down from 43 percent in 2009, according to Towers Watson & Co., a New York consulting firm.

Many companies have been eliminating retiree health insurance, too. Liberty is not ending coverage entirely but is dramatically cutting its contributions to the medical and dental insurance. It also will no longer offer life insurance for retirees over age 70.

Liberty Mutual’s profit more than doubled in 2012, to $829 million, despite large losses from Hurricane Sandy. For the first six months of 2013, the company reported net income of $766 million, up 28 percent from the same period last year.

Chief executive David H. Long attributed Liberty Mutual’s increased profits to “our commitment to disciplined underwriting and profitable growth.”

And the company has not been shy about spending money. It paid $4.5 million in 2011 to renovate Long’s executive suite. In July, the company opened its new $300 million Back Bay office tower, built in part with tax breaks and credits worth more than $46 million.

Long’s own compensation surged last year: He received $8.9 million in total pay, a 29 percent jump from 2011, when he was chief executive for only part of the year.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.
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