Modesty is the Order of the Day in Big HRO

As the earnings reporting season rolls on, some of the HRO heavy weights are reporting modest revenue growth for the second quarter 2010:

• ADP  Employer Services  $1.6 billion, up four percent

• Aon Consulting  $317 million, up six percent

• Mercer $838 million, up one percent  

There was no exuberance, rational or irrational, among the reporting executives. There was modestly cautious optimism based on some growth, strong pipelines and faith in that the cost-cutting actions taken during the downturn will continue to pay margin-enhancing benefits.

Benefits outsourcing revenues were stable at Aon Consulting ($51 million) and Mercer ($161 million). The hot action again seemed to be outside of the U.S., with health and benefits doing particularly well, and compensation consulting also up.

While ADP does not break out HRO, it did say revenue in the U.S., beyond payroll services, grew six percent. ADP Employer Services revenues are now 20 percent international, largely from payroll, and the global growth rate is expected to exceed that in the U.S.

Moderating a nice quarter is continued pricing pressures, client reluctance to make spending commitments on new outsourcing, and a slow return of discretionary spend on projects and other services. Mercer saw a nice sequential increase quarter to quarter in talent management and rewards, which it considers may be a bellwether of improved conditions.

Vendor operating margins have held up relatively well once actions were taken to lower expenses in line with lower incomes. ADP’s took a small dip of 3.2 percent because it has chosen to hire ahead of the full upturn, adding about 300 heads in sales and service. Mercer feels it is poised to move quickly to capture increased opportunities as they appear.

Aon Consulting will, of course, be busy with planning and then integration when it becomes Aon Hewitt. In commenting on the merger, Mercer was comfortable that, overall, it will be a stabilizing force in the market and a confirmation of Mercer’s own three pillars of consulting, outsourcing and investment services. Further, it expressed confidence in its ability to compete in the changed benefits landscape.

Still, it sure sounds likely that it will add something to bulk up a bit as well. MMC, Mercer’s parent,  has $1.5 billion in cash, with more coming in from the sale of Kroll. While it is perhaps not iminent, do expect to see Mercer make a move by the end of the year.  Any speculation on where it may add? Mercer is already strong in consulting, and at $2 billion per year, would it add in outsourcing, or perhaps investment services, which is its smallest, yet nicely growing unit?

Linda Merritt, Research Director, HRO, NelsonHall

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