Debi O’Donovan: The rise of international employee benefits

Debi O’Donovan, editorial director, Employee Benefits: In recent years we have noticed a distinct shift towards multinational employers looking at their benefits strategies on an international basis. Some have done this for decades, but over the past year or two the number of UK-focussed benefits managers who have been given an European, or even broader global, benefits remit has shot up.
Many are highly experienced in the provision of British benefits, but the idea of applying their expertise in other countries is more than a little daunting. They are finding little joy when they turn to their usual advisers and providers, for whom going international is also new territory.
Those consultants which do provide international guidance are seen to be highly expensive, so benefits managers are constantly looking for practical advice elsewhere.
I know of one manager who turned to her UK private medical insurance provider when she wanted to offer a healthcare benefit to staff based in Spain. She had hoped that this large PMI firm would be able to brief their Spanish arm to do the job. However this request simply got lost and there appeared to be no mechanism to refer the job into its European offices. Said benefits manager had a similar experience with a large UK childcare voucher provider when she wanted to launch childcare vouchers in France. In both cases she approached the relevant European arms of the same firms directly herself (much to the consternation of the UK offices when they found out).
These are just two examples, but are likely to be representative of a larger number of providers and advisers who haven’t yet woken up to the business potential of being able to work internationally, or at the least be prepared to establish partnerships with like-minded firms in other countries.
Benefits managers appreciate that not every provider can work in every country, but what we have seen several times are advisers taking the opportunity of a forward-looking client which wants to go global, to extend the advisers’ own international expertise. These adviser and client partnerships have been prepared to explore new ground together and as a result a number of advisers have been able to add an international string to their bow.
Feedback I have had from benefits managers is that once they have launched benefits in other countries they realise that the principles of a benefits launch are exactly the same as in the UK, it is mostly a case of getting over the hurdle of new tax and legal regimes that is the difficult bit.