Feature – Cover story: Influential benefits managers

Jamin Robertson shines a spotlight on some of the industry’s leading benefits thinkers and showcases their distinguishing signature perks

The past few years have born witness to some significant changes in the world of compensation and benefits. Employers have only just recovered from the headache of pensions simplification and are now faced with the incoming age discrimination legislation which comes into force in October.

Mark Childs, director of consultancy firm Total Reward Solutions, says: "In my working life, it feels that during this moment in time the government is having more impact on the shape and direction of benefits than it ever has before." But such developments also offer more opportunities for benefits managers, of which Mark Edelsten, head of reward consulting at Mercer Human Resource Consulting, believes they should take advantage. "Organisations have moved from thinking about pay and benefits to thinking about total remuneration. This is still in its infancy in the UK, and I think there’s a long way to go.

Flexibility in all its various modes is starting to really hit. We’re going to see much more flexibility in the way pension schemes work [for example]." Some benefits professionals instinctively grab hold of any opportunities that come their way and use them to rise to the top of their game.

In doing so, they are often among the first to introduce certain policies and practices, which can have a profound effect in shaping strategies across the industry. The individuals profiled below have done just that, having been noted across the industry for their often innovative or influential approach to reward.

Bronte Blomhoj, European people and environment leader, Innocent With its fruit smoothies popping up all over the place, Innocent’s European people and environment leader, BrontÅ’ Blomhoj is tasked with ensuring that the firm which began operating in 1998 as a sideline hobby is able to retain its small company values. "We’re not just in England anymore. I’m the European people person [covering] Ireland, France, Holland and Belgium. We’re kind of growing." Since joining the company in 2003, Blomhoj’s constant innovation has delivered one of the UK’s most compelling benefits packages, reinforcing its reputation as one of the best workplaces going. Where else might you find unsolicited poems on employees’ desks on Valentine’s Day and staff relaxing at work in their own time at 10pm on Friday?

But while the working environment may sound laid-back, Blomhoj has managed to smoothly blend a quirky reward ethos with Innocent’s ambitious commercial operation. Despite a turnover, which grew to £39m last year, she is adamant that Innocent’s jeans and t-shirt culture, foosball tables, and astro-turfed offices are here to stay. "We don’t duplicate everything [in our workplaces], but we duplicate what works," she says. This approach has helped to attract top young talent.

Blomhoj herself is an example of this, having previously worked in HR for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Much bigger employers have now begun to take notice of these innovative operators, often replicating their benefits. "It’s so great to see lots of companies are now taking care of the little things, such as breakfast," observes Blomhoj.

Karen Broughton, Director of human resources and corporate affairs, Westminster Primary Care Trust Westminster Primary Care Trust was one of the first organisations in the public sector to challenge the perception that flexible benefits plans and online benefits systems are concepts best suited to private sector firms. This was down to the hard work of Karen Broughton, director of human resources and corporate affairs at the trust.

To counter this, she looked to the private sector for inspiration and identified technology as key to communicating perks more clearly to staff. This resulted in the introduction of an online employee benefits platform and salary sacrifice perks for its 1,080 employees last year. "We wanted to show the total value of pay and non-pay, including their pension, and [for staff to] have access to benefits day or night, on whichever system they were using." Some 80% of staff logged on to the site in its first few weeks, surpassing expectations. The self-funding package has since been hailed as a public sector template, with others following her lead.

Chris Wilson, compensation and benefits director of Oracle UK Chris Wilson, compensation and benefits director of Oracle UK, is at the forefront of the redesign of its benefits strategy, which aims to implement a seamless package across international borders, in particular the UK, Ireland and South Africa. He’s working towards aligning benefits to reflect the movements of its skilled IT workforce. "Quite a high proportion of our employees have managers who are outside of the country. [Managers] don’t want disparate employees on completely different terms and conditions," he explains.

Wilson is equally focused on Oracle’s UK and Irish operations where a top-notch flexible benefits package is being used to smooth acquisitions. "Benefits say a lot about the culture of an organisation," he explains. With numerous changes now affecting benefits, Wilson remains one step ahead. His progressive attitude is illustrated by current planning around recruitment issues. "Society wants to be treated individually. Flexibility, flexible benefits and flexible working are increasingly requested and that’s something we need to respond to," he says.

Sam Mercer, Director, the Employers Forum on Age With age discrimination regulations looming, membership of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) has forged ahead. The EFA’s growth is testament to director Sam Mercer’s campaigning skills, honed through years working within parliamentary lobby groups. Her team of thirteen is currently busy serving EFA members ahead of the regulations coming into effect in October. Founded 10 years ago with a brief to represent employers in lobbying government and to raise awareness of age diversity, membership of the EFA has increased by 50% in the last 12 months.

It now represents 14% of the total UK workforce. "People are waking up to the fact that age [regulations] is the biggest piece of new employment legislation for a generation, and it can’t be ignored. "The phones are ringing constantly now, there’s a lot of questions," explains Mercer. She believes that the legislation is a progressive piece of employment law, and has worked hard to bring its message to bear, but stresses there is still much to be done. "It’s such a fast-moving agenda at the moment.

Those employers which recognise it is an issue are working very hard, although I do think there’s an enormous amount of complacency out there." The EFA intends to address this with an extensive awareness campaign this summer. Looking ahead, Mercer advises employers to work towards removing age-related benefits and benefits linked to service of more than five years, where these are not exempt under the terms of the legislation. She adds that the upshot will be fairer national conditions of employment for all age groups. "If you can’t get a job because of your age it’s just as damaging as if it is because of your race or gender," she says. Mercer received recognition of her tireless work last month when she won the outstanding individual contribution award at the Employee Benefits Awards 2006.

Nigel Trotman, business relationship manager, Whitbread Whitbread has won widespread industry acclaim for its progressive company car strategy, for which Nigel Trotman, business relationship manager, is responsible. Six years ago, he embarked on a culture change within the organisation to make Whitbread’s fleet of 600 company cars – comprising 500 business and 100 perk drivers – more environmentally friendly. The resulting policy saw Trotman introduce cash incentives to encourage staff to select fuel-efficient models. The introduction of flexible working policies, meanwhile, has also gone a long way towards helping to reduce the amount of mileage done by drivers.

Together, these have helped Whitbread to limit its carbon dioxide emissions and reduce its negative impact on the environment. And this was achieved without even restricting choice for employees. Whitbread’s business drivers, for example, can upgrade their BMW, Audi, Mini or Volkswagen cars every two years or after 35,000 miles. "There should be something [at Whitbread] that would fit the bill for most people. They get nice cars and [can do so] more often," Trotman says. The Whitbread car strategy was voted best company car strategy at the Employee Benefits Awards 2006.

Debra Corey, head of European reward, AS Watson Debra Corey faced more than just a walk down the high street when she left the US clothing retailer Gap and began work at AS Watson, the parent company of brands such as Superdrug, Savers and the Perfume Shop. At AS Watson, she faces a different growth strategy, and new challenges. "Gap grew from within. AS Watson is very interesting in that it’s grown so quickly but it’s all through acquisition. It hasn’t really had the opportunity to look at consistency across businesses," says Corey. AS Watson is now set to benefit from Corey’s experience coordinating employee benefits across different businesses. While at Gap, she revamped its reward philosophy in five countries, including the UK. "I was the voice of [countries] outside of the US. It was making sure, in the creation of something global, [we said] ‘Let’s remember to look at countries outside North America’.

A lot of the time in global companies we wrongly make assumptions that what’s good in one country will work in another," she says. Gap put in place a consistent compensation strategy and a benefits package that allowed for local variation. Staff buy in was achieved through extensive consultation and communication. Corey’s work at AS Watson is now underway. Her first task has been to implement a voluntary benefits plan. "What it will do for the future is to give the business confidence and make it much more open to doing cross-divisional projects," she says.

Mark Roberts, group benefits manager, Tesco No one can dispute Tesco’s reputation, particularly when it comes to its people management and benefits offering. Mark Roberts, group benefits manager, is at its helm. Befitting the rapid development of the company, his actions are consistently progressive, particularly in the retail industry. Tesco’s employee share schemes are just one example of a perk that helps it stand out from the pack. Last month, around 180,000 staff shared £78m of free shares, equivalent to 3.6% of annual earnings, in Tesco’s annual profit-based free share offer, Shares in Success.

Roberts explains that he wants to see staff build equity in the company. "We work hard to get the right combination between pay and benefits, and we are very committed to helping staff become share owners," he says. Although many Tesco employees earn close to the minimum wage, the benefits package has created some astute investors. "We know most people don’t sell the shares. That’s a fact I’m very proud of," he says. Straightforward communication is key to the success of its share schemes, which also include a share incentive plan and sharesave scheme. Roberts rejected the dry information on shares that can make staff switch off, in favour of a successful clear English campaign. Or Bengali or Punjabi. "This year, we’ve done brochures in a number of different languages.

That’s been very popular, helping people understand what the [share] schemes are designed to do," he says. The result is record numbers of employees taking part in Tesco share schemes. In other areas, Roberts has maintained popular voluntary benefit schemes, and policies such as flexible working, career breaks, and the proactive recruitment of older workers. Staff are given a clear rundown of the company’s investment in benefits via 190,000 total reward statements distributed annually to those with more than a year’s service. "I think that combination means that we are making [benefits] as accessible as possible," says Roberts.