Interview with Anthony York, head of reward at Punch Taverns

No matter how employers go about rewarding staff, Anthony York, head of reward at Punch Taverns, says the importance of doing it properly should never be questioned.

“Reward, including pay and bonuses, is often one of an employer’s biggest spends, yet so often it is taken for granted that it is just a cost rather than a potential influencer of performance,” he explains.

York says getting this idea across to the board of directors at Punch is one of his biggest achievements to date. “Until I arrived, there was no focus on reward as a key commercial influencer. If employers want reward to be a key part of any business plan, they need to make sure directors understand the impact it can have. It has a much more central part in our business now.”

York’s early career experience was influential. Before joining Spirit Group, which was subsequently bought by Punch Taverns, as compensation and benefits manager, he worked in reward consultancy for more than six years. The persuasive skills he learned in these roles have played a key part in helping him become the reward manager he is today.

“I must admit, I did find the first couple of years challenging in terms of the change of mindset,” he explains. “In consultancy, you get very good at selling ideas and designing things to suit a business strategy, but you are used for a limited time and then you leave the people working in the internal benefits department to make everything work.

“The hardest part was taking the job beyond the consulting stage – making everything live and delivering the projects from a strategic vision.”

So which side of the reward fence does York prefer? “They are as different as chalk and cheese,” he says. “I can see myself working in consultancy again, but can see myself in this kind of role too. Looking back on my consultancy career, it would have benefited greatly from having worked in this type of [corporate practitioner] role. But, equally, I think that my role here [at Punch Taverns] has benefited from my consultancy experience.”

Working in benefits was by no means a conscious career choice for York. He began as a trainee actuary before becoming a pensions analyst, then, out of the blue, he was offered an interview at consultancy Towers Perrin while at a friend’s barbecue. “I had a lot of interaction with pay and reward teams, and my feeling was that a more rounded corporate role would be a good development for my career,” he says.

York believes reward faces a big test in the current economic climate. He says the industry must ensure reward can adapt in the short term to meet the commercial needs of the organisation and the impact of the recession, without losing its ability to enable the company to perform better.

Having placed reward firmly on the agenda as a business performance driver at Punch Taverns, York’s next goal is to deliver on his promise. He says the leisure retail industry sets some tricky challenges, particularly in running sales incentive schemes for a transient workforce.

“In a retail business like ours, however good or well-aligned a plan is intellectually, however slick the delivery mechanisms are, if you can’t get people to understand it on the shop floor in the time they are willing to give to it, it will not work,” he says. “The more layers of measurement you add to a scheme, the harder it is for staff to understand. If they don’t, then no matter how fair and focused it is, it will not affect their behaviour.”

York supervises a team of four staff – his first foray into management. He describes himself as creative, and says his occasional lack of structure helps to make ideas reality. “We start off from a blue sky point of view. We think ‘what would we do if anything was possible?’. Then, if we come across something we definitely want to do, we set about working out a way of doing it.”

Curriculum Vitae:

2006-present head of reward, Punch Taverns
2005-2006 compensation and benefits manager, Spirit Group
1999-2005 benefit strategy consultant, Towers Perrin
1999 pensions analyst, Bacon & Woodrow
1997-1999 trainee actuary (pensions), Windsor Life Assurance


– Do you have a role model?

All of the principals I worked for at Towers Perrin had very good influencing skills and commercial alignment. I try to take the good aspects of what they try to do.

– Do you read any management books?†

It is not so much about management theory for me. We have a strong focus on authentic leadership here and I think that if you understand yourself and are true to yourself, everything else falls into place.

– What is your favourite benefit?†

Cars. From a personal perspective, I am a bit of a petrolhead, but they are also, by far, the most emotive influencer on how people feel about reward and HR in general.