Interview with Marie Jay, head of strategic HR at Countrywide Group


How would you describe yourself? An optimist who enjoys new challenges.

What management books do you read? The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey is on my to-read list.

What is your favourite benefit? Our discount scheme, because it offers something for everyone.

Curriculum Vitae:

2009-present head of strategic HR, Countrywide Group
2004-2009 associate director of HR, White Clarke Group
2001-2004 finance and HR manager, V-Ten (at the time, part of Daimler Chrysler UK).

Marie Jay, head of strategic HR at Countrywide Group, is proud to have produced a unified benefits package that appeals to a workforce with an age range of 16 to 87

As head of strategic HR for Countrywide Group, the UK’s largest estate agency, Marie Jay was tasked with devising a benefits package that would appeal to its 10,000 employees, who range in age from 16 to 87 and therefore have a wide variety of needs.

As a result, Jay has spent the best part of the last year rolling out a new voluntary benefits package. “Each of us looks for something different as we go through life,” she says. “It was really important to try to achieve a level of variety of benefits.”

The fact that the group’s previous benefits offering differed slightly across its five divisions added to the complexity of the project.

Jay appointed advisers Lorica Employee Benefits to assist in creating a package that would offer value while being as cost-neutral as possible. Jay claims the total cost of the group’s voluntary benefits scheme is no more than £3 per employee per year.

The package includes a voluntary health cash plan, corporate health screening and a bikes-for-work scheme.
But it is an employee discount scheme provided by voluntary benefits provider Next Jump, that has proved the biggest hit with Countrywide’s staff, with more than one-third having signed up for the discounts, which include gym membership.

These perks, introduced in April last year, add to Countrywide’s existing range of benefits, which includes personal accident insurance, childcare vouchers and the group’s stakeholder pension scheme, as well as enhanced discounts on its own property services, which have been extended to include its lettings division.

Jay and her 50-strong HR team went to work promoting the benefits package via leaflets and a new staff handbook at the end of last year. “One of the issues we had was that we had maybe not publicised our benefits as well as we could have,” she says.

Jay says the unification of benefits provision across the group is one of her biggest achievements to date.

She is also proud of the group’s workplace-giving scheme, which currently raises money for UK housing and homelessness charity Shelter and Cancer Research UK.

Jay’s typical day comprises a mix of project meetings, recruitment-related work and board reports, with media calls thrown in for good measure.

She says: “In theory, the role should be mostly strategic, but in reality I tend to be quite hands-on, so I would say it is an 80:20 split, with the majority of time spent on strategy.”

Pensions auto-enrolment is central to Jay’s 2012 agenda. She has appointed BlackRock to assist with administering the reforms, which will be no mean feat. It will involve educating the 8,500 employees who are not yet members of the group’s current stakeholder pension plan about its structure, and the requirements of the new pensions regime as a whole.

Jay is also spearheading a review of Countrywide’s corporate goals. “It is about whether they are still appropriate for the business,” she says. “We want to look at where they have come from, whether they have been achieved, what the business now needs to support its strategy, what the new goals for the next few years should be, and whether a change in our benefits package is required.”

Jay cites shifting employee demographics as the greatest change during her time in HR. “The UK is dealing with an older workforce, and family life has evolved, so organisations need to react to that and provide value,” she says.

Accordingly, Jay’s top tips for anyone considering a career in reward and benefits centre on keeping an open mind about emerging benefits, while always keeping the basics in place. “You have to reinvigorate them every so often and remind people they are there,” she says.

Jay hopes the introduction of total reward statements for Countrywide staff at the end of this year will help her and her team do just that.

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