Interview with Lesley Williams, group pensions director at Whitbread

Lesley Williams, group pensions director at Whitbread, has worked in pensions for more than 25 years, but before she discovered pensions accidentally through a temping agency in 1987, she went to Germany to follow her first passion of working with horses.

“I looked after and rode 10 dressage horses, in return for a pittance and the chance to learn at the home of modern dressage,” says Williams, who still competes in British dressage competitions at an advanced level.

Back in 1987, she decided to return to the UK and took up an administrative role in the pensions department at Gateway Foodmarkets, the supermarket chain that was rebranded as Somerfield in 1990 and acquired by the Co-operative Group in 2009. “I then went through various roles in various organisations working on in-house pension schemes, running executive pension schemes and personal pensions,” she says.

This included pensions roles at Abbey National, now part of Santander; the Pearl Group, now called Phoenix Group; and the Henderson Group, leading to her current role at Whitbread, which owns brands such as Beefeater, Costa Coffee and Premier Inns.

“It is extremely useful to have a broad range of experience,” she says. “My understanding of the way our industry works has been helped by the fact that I have worked for insurance companies, and worked with the full range of pensions in the UK, apart from the state pension. I understand what is going on in other set-ups and where people are coming from.”

Williams says the industry must ensure that pensions are communicated appropriately. “It is a very technical subject, and pensions people have an unfortunate habit of thinking they need to be very technical when explaining things,” she says.

Frighten people off

“The one criticism I would level at the whole pensions industry is that we frighten people off, and yet pensions are for everybody. We really should not be doing that. We should be trying to get our heads around talking to people in language they understand.”

Williams is doing just that for Whitbread’s 40,000 employees, who were auto-enrolled into the company’s existing trust-based defined contribution (DC) pension scheme on 1 January 2013. The company created a dedicated pensions website, which staff can access externally or through the organisation’s intranet.

“Employees can log into it and see tailored views of their individual benefits,” says Williams. “Our primary way of communicating with staff is by email, but we are building that up gradually. We use post as well.”

Complying with auto-enrolment has been one of Williams’ biggest challenges in her time in pensions.  “We have many systems that have to talk to one another, and a huge number of people across HR, payroll and several third parties working on the solution,” she says. “We have 40,000 employees and everything has to be automated.”

Although Whitbread has been able to use its existing DC pension scheme, it had to build in a new auto-enrolment section. “The most complicated part has been making sure the existing processes and the communications are compliant,” says Williams.

“The changes are not just ‘put in a new pension arrangement and make sure you run it this way’. We have had to change our payroll system and all our pensions administration to accommodate auto-enrolment.”

Williams is also vice-chairman of the National Association of Pension Funds’ retirement policy council, which this October will split into two to handle DC and defined benefit (DB) pensions separately.




2007-present group pensions director, Whitbread

2009-present NAPF retirement policy council, vice-chairman since 2011

2003-2007 head of pensions, reward and payroll, Henderson Group

2001-2003 consultant, Hazell Carr Consulting

1993-2001 head of pensions, Pearl Group

1991-1993 pensions officer, Abbey National

1989-1991 administration manager, City of Westminster Assurance

1987-1989 pensions administrator, Gateway Foodmarkets



How would you describe yourself?

I’m a control freak. I like to understand all the details, how it all works and hangs together. I am absolutely passionate about the way we communicate with people, and with keeping it simple.

What’s your favourite benefit?

Pensions, of course.

What are your hobbies?

I compete in dressage competitions. I have two horses.