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A First-Generation American Falls for Comp and Benefits

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Nick Vollrath 
Merck 

Nick Vollrath is a first-generation American, one who describes his involvement in benefits and compensation as “something I just fell into.” He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from St. Lawrence University, then earned his MBA from Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management. A relentless work ethic developed at a very young age, as well as a humble nature, has pushed Vollrath up the ladder through a multitude of companies and focuses.

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You’re a first-generation American, as your father is from Germany and mother is from Finland. What’s the story there?
They came to the United States for opportunities. My mother had only planned to stay for a year or two and then return to Finland. She ended up meeting my father at a party and the rest is history.

I was born here in the U.S., the only child of the two of them. The story I was told is after they were married, they tried to have child for some time but couldn’t conceive. On a trip to China, they met some sort of fortune teller who told my mother that she would soon be pregnant. Then, as far as I know, I was born about a year later. (Laughs) I also have a half-brother from my father’s earlier marriage.

How did they meet, and what did they do for work?
They were both living in New York City when they met. My mother was a salesperson for Herman’s Sporting Goods and later, a ticket agent for Iceland Air. She then went into business with my father.

My father was a goldsmith and a jeweler. When he first came to the U.S., he worked for Cartier and then opened his own business and had stores on Lexington and Madison avenues in New York. When I was in fifth grade, my father had a stroke. He lost his ability to speak, which was very hard for us, but we worked through it together.

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Left: A family selfie at Yellowstone. Right: Glamping it up in Montana. 

As a first-generation American, especially given the trauma involving your father, what was your childhood like?
It caused me to grow up quickly. I had to take a more active role in our household. Plus, with my parents not having grown up in America, they couldn’t provide me guidance in certain areas, like applying for college. It was left for me to figure out.

We weren’t wealthy by any means. So, if I needed money, I had to earn it myself. In eighth grade, I started working in a deli. I washed dishes, mopped floors, cleaned out refrigerators, etc. A couple of years later, I was promoted to deli clerk. I had other jobs too, like mowing lawns and working at a video store.

In college, you were an economics major with no real focus on what you wanted to do professionally. Then one of your friends asked if you wanted to talk with his father, who was a partner at what was then Hewitt Associates. What happened next?
I ended up getting an interview. They held a college interview day where 10 of us came in at the same time. What my manager told me years later is that the reason I got the job was not because I outshone everyone there, it was because I showed humility. Between interviews, someone asked if I’d like a glass of water, but the water cooler was empty. I took it upon myself to put the new one on. They were very impressed I would just go ahead and do that. So that little act ended up setting me apart from everyone else.

The water cooler story, the humility. Is that symbolic of the way you’ve gone about your career? Is that something that has set you apart not only then, but going forward?
I don’t know if everyone would agree with me, but I feel as if I’m a fairly down-to-earth person. And for me, when it comes to work, it’s important that we focus on getting the job done. I’m not interested in assigning blame. Instead, I focus on what needs to be done and ensuring we learn from our mistakes and don’t repeat them in the future.

What do you enjoy about the path you’ve taken? What is it about your ability that makes this profession a fit?
When I think back to searching for my first job, I didn’t know compensation and benefits was a profession, I just sort of fell into it. The need to combine both art and science to come up with an effective solution makes every day a new and exciting challenge. I’ve seen a lot of change in the profession over the last decade or so, with greater use of behavioral economics to nudge employees to make better benefits decisions and to better prepare them for retirement. As we look to the future, I see even more exciting opportunities for the profession to make an impact on our organizations with greater use of data and predictive analytics to identify areas of focus.

We play a significant role in ensuring the business is able to execute on its strategy and achieve its goals. This requires us to understand the business, its challenges and opportunities, and requires us to ask a lot of questions. It’s this need to be consultative that makes the job a lot of fun.

As far as interests away from work, what stands out? Any charities, any travel, any specific extracurriculars that enrich your life?
Personally, I like to exercise and stay fit. I usually get up around 5 a.m. to work out and find that it gives me much more energy during the day.

As a family, we love to travel. We just came back from a trip to Costa Rica. While we love to spend time on the beach, last summer we took a trip out West to Wyoming and Montana. It was probably one of our best vacations.