Interview with Julie Osman: director of pensions and benefits at Eli Lilly and Company

The prospect of partnership at Ernst & Young was not enough to keep Julie Osman, director of pensions and benefits at Eli Lilly and Company, working for the firm as a chartered accountant. Instead, she was more interested in being involved in running a business and, as luck would have it, such an opportunity arose in 1991 at her then client Eli Lilly.

“I think I wanted to be a part of driving a particular business forward. What [Eli] Lilly did and the values it had resonated with me, being part of an industry which, although much maligned, is ultimately making medicines which do improve the quality of peoples’ lives,” explains Osman.

However, it was not until she had worked for Eli Lilly for 10 years that she was given responsibility for pensions and benefits.”

[Eli] Lilly tends to bring people in and train them for a career rather than for just a job, so I rotated around a number of areas getting different experiences and broadening my financial skills. Then the opportunity to move to this role came up, which is on the employee benefits design side and the investment management side for the pension plan.”

Osman’s understanding of finance, boosted by working at Eli Lilly in roles such as financial planning, and relationship and negotiation management with the Department of Health on Eli Lilly pricing, has helped her and her fellow trustees put in place a recovery plan, approved by the Pensions Regulator, for Eli Lilly’s open defined benefit pension which had a deficit of £96m at the start of 2006.

In her role, Osman says: “You need to be not necessarily numerate, but comfortable with economics and investment strategies.”

But Osman recognises that others aren’t as comfortable as she is with the increasing responsibilities placed on trustees. “We have had one trustee director who has asked to come off the board because they felt they have not been able to devote enough time to it. It’s going to be a challenge going forward in how we get the right level of people on board and making sure that they do have education and the time to devote to that, and to make sure they are making informed choices.”

Despite further pensions reform, in particular, personal accounts that will involve auto-enrolment and minimum levels of staff and employer contributions, Eli Lilly’s DB scheme is set to stay. “We will need to understand the impact of [this], but [the pension] is not going to be something we are going to be leaping to change because we do believe that we have a responsibility to provide a reasonable retirement income.”

Although Eli Lilly is paternalistic, it wants employees to understand and accept that they also have some responsibility for their own long-term financial provision. To this end, it has given staff the option to pay additional voluntary contributions through salary sacrifice to help boost their retirement savings.

Osman accepts that other organisations may take a different philosophy and level down pension provision to the statutory minimum in the belief that as staff will come and go, they should provide for themselves long term. For smaller companies that do not currently pay pension contributions or have low take-up rates for their schemes, the new obligations are “going to be tough”, she adds.

Pensions is not the only challenge employers will face going forward. Osman believes they should also ensure that they respond to changing demographics by providing packages and choices that people find attractive at different times in their life. Osman has already implemented a flexible benefits scheme and an employee car ownership scheme at Eli Lilly to help deal with employees’ changing lifestyles by giving them more choice, but she thinks organisations will have to work harder than this to attract and retain talented staff in the future.

Curriculum Vitae†

2001-present HR director of pensions and benefits at Eli Lilly and Company
1991-2000 Various financial management positions at Eli Lilly and Company
1985-1990 Ernst & Young, qualified as a chartered accountant and completed an in-house MBA programme


  • What have you learned along the way? I think what you need to always do in describing things that can be quite complex, is look to see how you can simplify the messages, because if people haven’t understood they won’t act.
  • On benefits, does it help to speak the same language as the finance director? I think so. But it’s the right message for the right audience. It’s thinking: what do they need to understand. What do the staff, the finance director, and the HR director need to understand; and pitching the messages so it’s relevant to the person you are talking to.
  • Do you have any tips? When undertaking changes, we have found it very helpful to have employee focus groups at each site. Engaging with those groups and getting them on side has been valuable for us so that they almost become advocates of the change you are trying to introduce.
  • What are your favourite benefits? The pension and retail vouchers.