Feature – Bright young benefits professionals

In summary
New kids on the benefits block are shaking off the fuddy-duddy reputation of HR. Here we talk to some rising stars about their careers, perceptions of HR and what inspires them.
Case studies: Roger Fairhead, Rank Group; Brontë Blomhøj, Innocent Drinks; Meredith Stamp, Gap; Hew Evans, Sony Ericsson; and Brian Newman, ClearChannel.

Article in full
“I started in HR because I thought I liked people but I stayed in HR because I realised I hated them,” replied one senior benefits professional from a FTSE100 organisation when asked why she settled on her chosen career.

Her view does little for HR’s reputation. Yet, of late, the profession has gone a long way towards shaking off its uninspiring image of excessive tea drinkers that hardly set the world alight. You only have to look at how the benefits industry has risen in status over the past few years. This is reflected in the increasing number of younger benefits workers who are coming up alongside their more experienced colleagues with a renewed zest which is having a real effect on how employee benefits are being viewed by bosses in British boardrooms.

Jane Robson, director at HR recruitment agency Courtenay HR, says that over the past five years reward has crept up the HR agenda. But there haven’t been enough employees with the relevant experience to fill the increasing number of roles created by this surge in popularity. “This has meant there’s room for bright young things with commercial understanding to step into these roles,” says Robson. She adds that a rising number of senior managers may also be helping themselves to a slice of the work-life balance pie, which leaves the way open for benefits folk in more junior roles to gain hands-on experience that was previously out of reach.

Brian Newman, HR consultant at ClearChannel Entertainment, offers an explanation for HR’s bad reputation. “HR is very good at talking about doing stuff; we’re great at writing it down and planning what we’re going to do but delivery of it is something completely different. Crucially, let’s get the things done. That’s the bit where I’ve been lucky to have worked with people who work like that.”

Newman has helped to set up a recognition scheme and a huge awards ceremony at the theatre company and says knowing that the company’s board of directors and his own managing director saw the success of what he had achieved was one of his proudest moments.

As this shows, dealing with such top executives is essential. Hew Evans, compensation and benefits manager at mobile phone firm Sony Ericsson, agrees. He says that he often needs to get involved in issues that are being discussed at the head table. “If we need to expand the business [we need to know] what the impact is on the people and how we pay them.” And he adds that he is comfortable with this. “It has to be done. You’re a business person first; you’re bringing to the pot a professionalism within a certain area of HR. You are relied on for certain advice to help in certain decisions.”

Roger Fairhead, group compensation and benefits director at leisure firm Rank Group, who controls pay and benefits for all areas of the business including the board, agrees that this is an important aspect of his job. “It’s good to be able to discuss matters with such people and gain from their experience.”

Such experience is also extremely important when it comes to making people decisions. But despite being younger than the average HR professional, many of these fresh-faced stars do have plenty of experience, as well as the business acumen, to do the job successfully. Many have worked with a number of clients in consultancy roles, dealing with a range of issues across sectors.

Evans adds that age is becoming less noticeable as he sees more and more people of the same age and from the same peer group becoming involved in the industry.

“If you go to the seminars, everyone’s a little older but you’re all talking about the same thing. I wouldn’t make such an issue of it,” he says.

Highly evolved social skills are also believed to be responsible for this trend.

Duncan Brown, assistant director general at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says that this group of rising stars often have great social skills, which help them get to the top of their profession early on. He adds that this is helped by many HR professionals specialising in such areas as benefits earlier. Graduate schemes from HR consultancy firms such as Towers Perrin and Mercer HR Consulting are now taking graduates straight from university, whereas previously they wanted staff who had worked for a number of years before joining them. In addition, the CIPD launched a professional reward qualification in October this year.

However, this trend towards specialising earlier doesn’t suit everyone. Some of the most interesting and exciting reward ideas are coming from people within smaller, more dynamic businesses. Innocent Drinks, which employs around 50 staff, has introduced a number of ideas that have helped it to obtain a fantastic retention rate. Brontë Blomhøj, people person at the smoothie maker, says: “In a small company I think it’s easier than if you have to change the mind of a company that’s been going for years. I don’t think I’d go into a big company again. The innovation [of working for a small organisation] is amazing and seeing what you’ve put in place is very rewarding.

We’re not just going snowboarding just because we like it; there are strategies behind our motivational schemes.”

So business attitudes towards reward are changing. Solutions to issues such as the pensions crisis and underwater share options are being discussed at the top.

Of course there will be many senior practitioners ready and able to introduce new ideas to combat these issues. But it will also take younger troops to turn these thoughts into working game plans. With retirement nowhere near the horizon for these folk, they often face the same savings problem as the majority of their workforces, which may prompt them to make a more urgent response. Starting now.

Hot shot profile
Roger Fairhead
, group compensation and benefits director at the Rank Group, is considered a rising star in the world of compensation and benefits, with a particular fondness for share schemes.
He started his career as a chartered accountant because he says he didn’t know what else to do after university. Following a stint working for one of the big four accountancy firms, he moved into the music business as Universal Music’s head of compensation and benefits. During his time at the record company, which counts U2 and Bon Jovi among its artists, he was keen to promote the use of unapproved share schemes to staff as well as encouraging staff to save for their pension.

He then moved to leisure company The Rank Group, which runs the Mecca Bingo and Hard Rock Cafe brands, where he now deals with pay and benefits issues liasing with both the remuneration committee and the board.

What would your one piece of advice for someone who wanted to become a benefits manager?
“Make sure you know the technical detail, but don’t get absorbed by it. Always keep a broader perspective of what your company is aiming to achieve and make sure your programmes continue to support those aims.”

Hot shot profile
Brontë Blomhøj
is the people person at drinks company Innocent, which is less than five years old. She is one of the faces of a young, exciting company that promotes a fun, interesting working environment and is responsible for all elements of its people strategy, from benefits to recruitment to training.

She joined Innocent after working for investment banks JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. “I burnt all my suits when I started at Innocent,” she says.

Friday beers, table football and baby bonuses are some of the inspiring policies that mean Innocent has yet to lose a single employee to a rival firm. But Blomhøj explains that these policies were designed to meet a specific business reason. “Ideas are one thing, but to implement them, everyone’s got to be behind them. It looks like a very nice company and we do lots of nice things but it isn’t just a shell; it has a strategy, we have put a lot of thought behind it.”

What inspires your go getting attitude?
“You’re only as good as the people you work with and I work with some absolutely fantastic people. Up until I found Innocent, I didn’t know there was a company that shared my views. I stumbled into Innocent by accident; I had a smoothie for lunch and looked at the website and there was my job. What I realised was that I’d found a job which wanted to do the same things in people development.”

Hot shot profile
Hew Evans
, compensation and benefits manager at mobile phone firm Sony Ericsson, is a product of Mercer HR Consulting’s graduate recruitment programme.

Following a degree in economics he found the scheme by trawling the graduate press and spent four years working with Mercer’s flex reward consultant Marcus Underhill on a variety of projects. “They exposed you to as much of the business as they could safely – getting [you] involved in communication, meeting clients [and being] out and about from day one,” he says.

He then joined the UK consumer division of Sony, where he stayed for a year, and was responsible for compensation matters and HR policy and process. This lead to his current position in the team that set up cellular technology firm Sony Ericsson.

What has been your biggest achievement as a benefits manager? “Being part of a global set up; being part of the team that set up a company that’s now going places on a global level. It’s quite an achievement.”

Hot shot profile
While Brian Newman, HR consultant at ClearChannel Entertainment, likes to be thought of as a general HR man, since he joined the theatre company in February 2003 he has helped to introduce a company-wide recognition programme, a massive awards ceremony and is already discussing occupational health strategies and flexible benefits. Then again he wrote his university dissertation on flexible benefits less than eight years ago during an industrial placement at the Woolwich building society.

He understands that he is slightly younger than many of his peers and believes the environment in ClearChannel has helped him to progress quickly.

“Some people do probably look at me and think the boss has sent her PA to get her the notes,” he says of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development branch meetings he attends. But he adds that working in central London is a real help to his job because of the networking opportunities.

“Personally the next step is that I’d like to do things entirely on my own; to sit and convince the managing director that this is how I shape my HR function.”

What were your first thoughts of the world of human resources? “I worked in a supermarket as a teenager. I knew what the personnel manager did – she sacked you if you were naughty.”

Hot shot profile
Gap’s Canadian compensation and benefits officer, Meredith Stamp, planned to go travelling for a year when she stumbled into the benefits industry via the retailer.

“I knew at the time I wanted to work in fashion retail, but at that early stage of my career I was really receptive to all opportunities that presented themselves within the industry. As it turned out, I was fortunate to have met and worked with some amazing and influential HR professionals early in my career who introduced me to the world of employee benefits and really supported my development.”

She adds that working at Gap, which is widely praised for its provision of top notch voluntary benefits and its stakeholder pension take-up, has not only helped her to deal with the upper echelons of management but also the entire workforce.

“In my current role it’s equally imperative to be able to communicate to all levels of employees from store staff to regional manager level. I take pride in delivering the same level of service regardless of level or status,” she says.

Do you think that being younger than many in the benefits industry has helped you?
“Although I hope to always have a healthy level of enthusiasm I think that being younger and new to the game does have its advantage. There is an expectation that as a young person you will be adventurous in your approach.”