HARRISBURG — Terrill “Terri” Sanchez’s office is in a building just across Third Street from where she began her career with the state government nearly 35 years ago.
While her capital city work location hasn’t changed much, her status certainly has. She has ascended the ranks from intern with the Department of Revenue to executive director of the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) — one of the nation’s oldest retirement plans for public employees with more than 239,000 members and more than $29 billion in assets.
Sanchez, who oversees 200 employees and handles an annual operating budget of $30 million, is believed to be the first female executive director in the agency’s 96-year history, and in the history of any statewide retirement system in Pennsylvania.
The Coal Township native, who began her new role in May after 26 years with the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS), was described in a SERS newsletter as bringing “energy and excitement” to the job. She’s proud of those traits, but is also quick to list a few others: hard work, courage and character. She also credits the influence of mentors and her small-town upbringing.
“It’s incredible,” she said, reflecting on her modest start and her current leadership status. “I could have never imagined.”
Sanchez, who turned 57 in December, is the youngest of the four children of Ed and Phyllis Lippay, of Holly Street, Coal Township. She was a health and physical education major when she enrolled in Lock Haven University following graduation from Shamokin Area High School in 1979. However, she remembers thinking, “What am I going to do after school? Where are the jobs?”
Still in her freshman year, a new curriculum grabbed her attention — computer science.
“I had never even seen a computer in my life,” she said. “But I said, ‘I think I’m going to try that,’ and I switched majors.”
It was a wise move considering how technology would advance over the decades since then. But for Sanchez, there was a more practical reason: Having grown up in a family of modest means, she knew the value of a good job and wanted to be sure she had opportunities.
During high school she worked at a hamburger stand at Knoebels Amusement Resort and at the Rock Street community pool in Shamokin as a lifeguard and swimming instructor, and her jobs in college included Wendy’s, as a resident assistant in the dorms and washing dishes in the university cafeteria.
Sanchez recalled how she signed up for a work-study program in her freshman year but was told there were no jobs available.
“I marched up to whatever office it was and said, ‘You need to give me a job; this is my funding.’ They gave me a job in a girls dorm, mopping the halls and cleaning the bathroom,” she recalled. “That was pretty humbling, but I had no choice.”
She was adamant about working over the summers, too, including after her junior year in 1983. She heard about the Harrisburg Internship Program and, though an internship wasn’t required for graduation, she knew the experience would be beneficial. She ended up with a choice between a programming-related job in the Department of Education or a systems analysis job with the Department of Revenue.
“That intrigued me more,” she said of the latter. “I always liked the analysis part better than pure coding or programming — how processes work and how you might improve them.”
That full-time paid internship — she carpooled in a van with others from the Shamokin area, including her cousin Mary Hupp — was her introduction to state government. Except for one year with a private computer consulting firm, she’s been there ever since.
Moving up quickly
Sanchez had met Robert Savidge, who would become her first husband, during the internship. After graduation from Lock Haven, she moved to Harrisburg and soon had a systems analyst job with the Public Utility Commission.
“I was just absolutely thrilled,” she said.
She had maternity time but remained in the workforce during the birth of her two sons, Michael and Brian, in the late 1980s.
“I was constantly looking — what’s available? What’s next?” she said.
The answer became PSERS. She took a job there in 1987.
“I got that job and moved up very quickly,” Sanchez said.
She gives credit to a woman who would become a lifelong mentor, Helen Hosler. She assigned Sanchez one leadership role after another, which she successfully filled. Sanchez recently relived these experiences when asked to speak to a group of alumni from one of the commonwealth’s leadership development programs.
“Most of my speech was about Helen and how she mentored me,” said Sanchez, her frequent smile and upbeat nature suddenly subdued as she teared up. “Sorry … I just feel so lucky to have had someone like her — and a female nonetheless. She saw something in me far before I saw it in myself. I never came into the work world, the professional world, thinking, ‘I’m a leader.’”
Hosler said Sanchez’s “superstar” qualities were evident when she first interviewed for the job. It was a systems analyst position, but Hosler immediately had other thoughts.
“She was very bright, very articulate, very creative,” she said. “I just knew — and it was immediate — I wanted her to be the supervisor, not just the analyst.”
That’s in fact what happened, and Hosler said Sanchez continually proved herself. Hosler, who retired in 2008 and lives in North Carolina, wasn’t surprised when she heard her friend had been named executive director at SERS.
“Well-deserved,” she remembers thinking. “And lucky them.”
Among the lessons from Hosler that stick with Sanchez is that, when they were both in IT, their goal was to serve the customer, and in that case it was the business side of the retirement system.
“It was instilled in me,” she said. “’How can we make their jobs easier and more efficient so that they can then ultimately help the members?’”
In her supervisory role, she was often younger than the men and women she was overseeing. It challenged her.
“I really had to learn how to gain respect,” she said. “They weren’t going to be like, ‘Oh, yes, whatever you say.’”
One important development was taking on project to update the payroll system, which she said was old and complicated. Sanchez said other coworkers were apprehensive to tackle it.
“I had the courage to try it, and people reviewed it and it worked,” she said. “And from that point on, I had their respect.”
Sanchez jokes how, as a state employee, she’s now in charge of her own retirement fund. But she’s dead serious when it comes to the goal of the organization she leads.
“The $29 billion that we have — it’s not my money, it’s not the board’s money, it’s not the investment people’s money. It’s the members’ money,” she said.
Members include retirees or their spouses who are receiving benefits — SERS paid out about $3.3 billion in 2017 — and current state workers who are saving for their futures.
She said the balance SERS looks to achieve is maximizing investment returns with “the right amount of risk.”
While the state does contribute to employees’ retirements and investments help them grow, it should not be forgotten that the workers pay their share.
“There’s no free ride,” Sanchez said.
With that comes the pressure to not fail the members. Sanchez learned to manage that daunting responsibility in her years at PSERS, which has about twice as many members as SERS, where she was deputy executive director before departing.
She recalled how a $30 million, multi-year project she led to install a new computer system and implement enhanced business processes at PSERS resulted in her first offer of a deputy position in 2007. It allowed her to showcase her computer skills combined with her understanding of the member benefits side of the business.
But she quickly notes how teamwork played a part.
“I lead an incredible group of people. I had a vision and I would be a cheerleader,” she said.
She takes a similar approach today.
“When (people) are part of a project, and they see they had success, they want to get on board,” she said. “And you really get some of the stars coming out who say, ‘I believe in this. I want to help with whatever the next challenge is.’”
Sanchez’s corner office on the fifth floor of the Wells Fargo building — she notes she used her own money to purchase table-top lamps that create a more comfortable atmosphere — has a view of the Capitol complex that begins across the street on the next block.
She deals regularly with the governor’s office, the Legislature and others from “across the street” — the common reference to the Capitol.
The 11-member SERS board includes a mix of financial professionals, lawmakers and the state treasurer and secretary of banking and securities. David R. Fillman, president of AFSCME, is the chairman.
Internally, Sanchez meets often with her executive staff, including representation from legal, investments, policy, communications and other departments.
“I’m a very collaborative person,” she said, noting she’ll “go around the table” for input. “I want people to understand what others are doing, because then you better understand how what you do impacts them.”
She said it’s important that she relies on others, something that’s not as easy as it sounds.
“As you move up, you take on more responsibilities in broader areas, and you’re not going to be an expert in every one,” she said. “You can’t do this alone.”
Despite her lofty position, Sanchez, now married to Daniel Sanchez, believes she has remained humble in part from the lessons of her upbringing at a home on Mulberry Street in Coal Township. Among those was this assessment from her mother: “You’re just as good as anybody else; and you’re no better than anybody else.”
Sanchez knows to this day, “It’s not about social status, it’s not about how much money you make — it’s about your character,” she said. “And those are the things that remind me the most of home.”
She doesn’t ignore the fact that her appointment to leadership of a large state agency came at the same time as the #MeToo movement. More than a gender issue, she said it’s about the courage to stand up for yourself and others.
She values the lessons learned from people such as Hosler and Jeff Clay, former executive director at PSERS. And she’s advanced in her career to the point where she’s now the one being credited as a valuable mentor.
“People have come up to me — more in the last couple of years — females and males, saying, ‘You’re my mentor; I wanted to be like you,’” she said. “The letters I got when I left PSERS after all those years ... a lot were from females saying, ‘You make me so proud to be a female.’ That’s so incredibly rewarding. I couldn’t ask for more.”