Experiences of benefits managers

Jamin Robertson gauges some notable moments from the careers of some of the nation’s foremost benefits professionals

Graham Drewett, compensation and benefits manager, LogicaCMG

When financial planning company Acuma was sold by finance giant American Express in 1994, Graham Drewett, its compensation and benefits director, turned from hirer to firer. “My last job was to create redundancy packages for everybody, including myself.” The sale was the end of the line for nearly 500 workers.

However, a few key staff were asked to stay on. “It was a strange time really because we had to design retention packages to keep [them] on, to stay around long enough for the business to transfer over.”

As that handover loomed, rules were relaxed. “We reverted to casual dress each day to keep people happy. At the end, we [said goodbye by having] a huge party in the office, with transport laid on so anybody that got legless could get home,” he adds.

Back in the early days, Drewett was responsible for determining pay and benefits at the fledgling company. “[We had to design a] pay and benefits structure [and] present back to the Amex board. We started by borrowing the benefits package from American Express, but decided to go out and do our own thing and that was quite exciting. I think Amex was looking at us with wry amusement to see if it was going to work.”

The design of an attractive reward package for the direct sales staff was a hit.

“[That was] the most innovative thing. It was a hybrid between pay and commission, paid 24 times a year, which was unique at the time,” Drewett says.

But he admits he wasn’t always visionary: “There was one moment where I was sitting down in my rented office looking out at Trafalgar Square with a pad in front of me thinking ‘I haven’t actually got the foggiest idea what to do next’. Of course you resort to making a list and picking off [each] job.”

He then witnessed the company’s expansion from an initial staff of 30 to become, by 1994, a medium-sized employer.

Drewett joined LogicaCMG in 1999. His major tasks to date include introducing a defined benefit pension scheme and launching a flexible benefits plan.

Hew Evans, compensation and benefits director, Sony Ericsson

A relative young gun among benefits managers, Hew Evans has made some rapid career moves since joining international mobile phone company Sony Ericsson.

Evans originally worked for Mercer HR Consulting, before becoming benefits manager at Sony UK in 2000. One year later, he was invited to join international HR at Sony Ericsson, where he now coordinates the benefits policy for operations in over 50 countries.

The aftermath of the Sony Ericsson partnership in 2001 sticks in his mind. “[We said] ‘this is Sony Ericsson, get on board’. The challenge right at the start was harmonising the benefits programme, so we took the decision to get rid of [existing] programmes and put everyone on the same package.”

Evans is proud of major cost savings the company recently made in the US. “Last year, we stripped out around $3m of cost just by renegotiating benefits packages. [It] had a direct impact on the business.”

He has also made changes to bonus pay. “We removed unnecessary discretionary targets. It’s [now] very clear. We’re happy to pay the money but only for the results.”

Evans particularly enjoys administering benefits within an international context. “You see different solutions to the same people issues all over the world,” he explains.

Fiona Chamberlain, group payroll and benefits manager, Wincanton

Making tough-as-teak truck drivers aware of the delicate nature of prostate cancer ranks among the highlights of Fiona Chamberlain’s time at Wincanton, the distribution corporation employing 22,500 UK staff.

“My most successful benefits launch was the AIG personal accident and positive care [scheme]. To get drivers in off the road to sit down and talk about accident insurance is fine, but to hear about prostate cancer [is different]. It’s quite a known cancer for drivers, who sit in one position for a long time. That went down exceedingly well, we had a 30% take up [of the insurance policy],” she says.

The upheaval caused by Wincanton’s demerger from Uniq in May 2001 also had its moments, as Chamberlain had to align payroll systems and implement suitable benefits for the standalone PLC. “We had all sorts of different pension schemes, and we had a myriad of healthcare [benefits],” she says.

But she cites pay as her primary focus. “I’ve been doing my job for 32 years and I’ve always been in payroll. I am a payroll professional through and through, and everything else is an add-on to payroll. The best thing about my job is paying people correctly, on time, and having a quiet phone at the end of the week. That means nothing has gone wrong.”

Julie Bowen, group HR manager, Ajilon

Despite a broader HR remit, Bowen turned her hand to benefits when launching a flexible benefits scheme at Ajilon. “I feel a bit of a fraud really. I’m not a benefits manager, and I wouldn’t really want to be one, thank you very much,” she jokes.

The company’s flex scheme was introduced last year for staff across all Ajilon’s businesses, which are a collection of well-established recruitment brands such as Computer People, Office Angels, and Johnathan Wren, plus six other recruitment-based organisations acquired in March 2002.

Bowen says flex presented a strong case. “When we joined forces as an integrated HR team we sat round the table and looked at all the benefits packages across nine different firms and realised we needed to implement some sort of [group] harmonisation.”

The first challenge was to market the parent company. “The brand identity is very strong, so an Office Angel is an Angel, they’re not an Ajilon person. We had to create a brand to stamp the [Ajilon] identity.”

Following the launch to 1,400 staff in June 2004, a survey revealed 77% of staff preferred the new package. “Doing flex is quite focused. You have to get really into the nitty gritty and decide what the [perks] offer,” adds Bowen.

Carolyn Wilkinson, senior employee benefits manager, PricewaterhouseCoopers

With PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) payroll soaring to 20,000 people during Carolyn Wilkinson’s 26 years at the financial group, she admits any new benefits present a challenge.

But this hasn’t served as a deterrent and more changes are currently underway. “We’ve introduced a new [online] benefits system that has been a major project for a number of us. We’re also halfway through our renewal period for flexible benefits, and usually 11,000 out of 14,000 [current staff] make changes.”

PwC’s flex scheme was introduced back in 1999, to lure financial talent in a competitive labour market. However, Wilkinson has seen staff numbers ebb and flow, with 6,000 employees departing following the sale of its consulting business to IBM in 2002.

“Along the way we’ve grown from 2,000 to 20,000 [staff] and back to 14,000.” She says that benefits harmonisation has gone well and the firm also likes to regularly experiment with the mix: “It’s interesting to provide new benefits, to be able to review what’s on offer and what we can do for our staff.”

Karen Melville, pay and benefits executive, Dundas & Wilson

Dundas & Wilson, Scotland’s largest corporate and commercial law firm, employs just under 300 lawyers. In a competitive and often London-focused industry they still clamour for top legal talent.

Karen Melville joined the firm in April 2003: “Obviously, salary is very important but also the add-ons are just as important. I [need] to think outside the box. Our [home computing initiative] last year went really well, [with a] 9% take up. We also brought in childcare vouchers from April this year [with] a good uptake of 11%. Childcare is expensive, so with employees saving tax and NI] it’s very worthwhile.”

Melville is always keen not to emphasise perks in its main headquarters location in Edinburgh, choosing to give balance to its satellite offices.

Last year, she got out-and-about to the firm’s London and Glasgow sites to bring employees up to speed with their benefits package. “It’s so expensive to live in Edinburgh [so we offer benefits such as] an annual travel season pass [with deductions taken] direct from salary. [The roadshow] was a good highlight.”

Her next task is to educate staff about pensions simplification, aiming to offer access to independent financial advice during working hours.

Paul Whitney, pay and benefits manager, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council

Although Paul Whitney has been a public servant since 1979, he is still a relative newcomer to the cut and thrust of pay and benefits, moving from a general human resources-type role in September 2003. “It was a good career move from me. I’ve enjoyed being involved in new developments. You have to go to a lot of effort to be inclusive dealing with a large complex organisation, and I enjoy networking with other managers, and working with key people [within] the organisation.”

Whitney observes a sharper focus on pay and benefits. “It’s more common [as a specialised role] within local government. A key part is [that] councils [are] looking to develop a positive image, with the driver to expand [staff] choice [of benefits].”

He is particularly proud of the recent launch of Stockport Council’s childcare voucher scheme, offered to 12,000 staff.