Employer profile: Zurich

Swiss-based financial services firm Zurich looks to its roots for benefits leadership, but has the flexibility to tailor perks on a local level, says Kate Donovan

Zurich Financial Services’ 8,868 employees based in the UK, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands may not have the sunshine or exotic scenery of some of their global counterparts in locations such as Asia Pacific or Latin America, but its Swindon-based HR payroll and benefits shared service centre seeks to offer perks these staff will value.

Zurich has three UK operations: UK General Insurance, UK Life, and Global Corporate. Although the company has an overall global HR strategy, the UK’s HR payroll and benefits team supports the business at an individual country level. While it follows the global strategy, the team also has a certain degree of flexibility to adapt this to suit the UK workforce, as perks options vary from country to country due to cultural differences and varying legislative and tax requirements. Pete Steer, UK HR payroll and benefits director, says: “Therefore, in the UK we are free, within certain parameters, to do what we want, providing it is competitive.”

Since the merger of Zurich with Allied Dunbar and Eagle Star in 1998, when the HR functions for the three businesses were brought together, the organisation has worked hard to offer employees plenty of flexibility around HR and benefits.

Steer, who took on his current role at the time of the merger, explains that the first few years immediately after this were demanding. “It was a very challenging time, closing down operations in different sites and throwing away three old HR systems and introducing a new one,” he says.

However, the merger also created opportunities to develop the company’s benefits offering. “The merger of the three companies caused us to want to be more efficient and get value from [it],” he adds.

As well as increasing the core benefits it provides, in the UK Zurich offers a package, called ‘Flexible Benefits’ which it alters in response to employee feedback if appropriate. Salary sacrifice on food and drink in on-site restaurants and kiosks, and extended dental perks, for example, were added to the scheme in January. Other benefits, meanwhile, include the opportunity to trade holiday entitlement by buying or selling up to five day’s holiday a year to a maximum of 30 days and a minimum of 20 days, discounted health and mole screening, and childcare vouchers.

Employees pay for the benefits out of their gross salary, and any resulting tax and national insurance savings are returned to their net pay. Steer explains that employees’ salary is effectively a flexible benefits pot.

Zurich also uses its buying power to negotiate discounts on benefits and offer further savings for staff.

The flexibility of the scheme is intended to offer choice to the organisation’s diverse workforce. Job roles within the company include lawyers, accountants, IT specialists, administrators, and marketing and communications specialists. “We have to find a way of catering for our call centre employees, who are probably a younger population straight out of school, all the way through to our London underwriting centre where the technical specialists are at a completely different life [stage], ” says Steer.

He adds that holiday trading and retail vouchers are particularly popular with call centre employees.

When deciding which benefits to take, staff can use an online modelling tool, which was introduced at the time of the organisation’s merger. This allows employees to select and cost options, experimenting with the impact of investing in certain benefits on both their gross and net salary during the month-long selection period.

Steer advocates the use of technology. “I see the future excitement being the further use of technology to enable the transactional side of HR,” he says.

However, he is conscious of the fact that the people element of HR is still important and, in certain circumstances, employees prefer to receive paper-based communications. Zurich produced both an online and paper-based copy of its Flexible benefits 2008 booklet to cater for all preferences.


The company also uses total reward statements to communicate benefits to staff. It first issued a paper version in 2005, repeating the exercise last year. Due to the popularity of the statements, the company now plans to make them an annual feature. However, deciding whether to take them online is currently the matter of some debate. “We are facing a bit of a dilemma in many ways because we have an e-HR strategy and obviously the way to go is to put the statements online. But the overwhelming feedback from our employees is that actually they really value the paper version,” explains Steer.

To help with such decisions and to ensure benefits continue to meet the needs of the workforce, an online survey is sent out to a targeted number of employees at the end of each benefits selection period to assess the popularity of perks and to gauge how successfully staff feel the scheme is run. “We are really conscious that there are new ideas out there on the marketplace. It gets increasingly hard to try and be creative which is where it is good to use the staff feedback,” says Steer.

The organisation’s attempts to respond to employees’ needs and desires can be seen in its flexible working policy. All employees can put the case forward for working flexible hours, whether this is through job sharing or compressed hours. Steer is keen for managers to accommodate requests from staff. “I think it puts more of a demand on managers to structure their team to cover the working day, but I think employees benefit from that flexibility and I think that is part of retention and motivation,” he explains.

Looking ahead in the quest to continue retaining and motivating staff, Steer and his team will work on targeting benefits communications. “We’ve certainly got the data and the technology, I think we’ve got to find the right mechanism to promote [benefits] to people.”

He adds that the organisation is currently assessing how best to do this, without being seen to make assumptions about what employees require.

Zurich at a glance

The Zurich Group was founded in 1872 and is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. The organisation first came to the UK in 1922, since when its presence has grown organically and through mergers and acquisitions.
In 1998, the Zurich Group increased its market share in the UK by buying the financial services arm of BAT Industries, which included Eagle Star and Allied Dunbar (previously Allied Hambro), to form Zurich Financial Services.

Post merger, a unified share structure initially existed in which Zurich Financial Services (Zurich) was listed primarily in Zurich with a secondary listing in London. This structure was simplified in 2000 and unified under a single Swiss holding company. In October 2006, Zurich completed its delisting from the London Stock Exchange.

With a network of subsidiaries and offices in markets including North America, Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America, the insurance-based financial services provider has 58,000 employees serving customers in more than 170 countries. In the UK, Zurich has 45 sites, employs 8,868 people and has three key business units: UK General Insurance, UK Life and the Global Corporate division, as well as the shared services function which includes IT, HR, marketing and finance.

To the end of September 2007, the organisation reported a business operating profit for its global life business in the UK of USD$296m, an increase on the USD$188m for the same period in 2006. This positive performance in the UK reflects that of the Group, which reported a business operating profit of USD$4.9bn for the first nine months of 2007 up on USD$4.4bn for the same period in 2006.

Salary sacrifice

Choice will also remain high for UK employees. As general and life insurance are at the core of Zurich’s business, employees already receive a number of protection benefits. This has recently been increased with the launch of extended dental perks and the introduction of discounted mole screening offered through salary sacrifice.

This year has also seen the launch of the ZEDCard, which offers employees discounts on on-site food and drink where funded through salary sacrifice. Steer declines to comment in detail on HM Revenue & Customs’ decision to issue letters to employers running such schemes questioning the validity of such perks. He says: “As I understand it, this is an area that HMRC is looking at, but until there is some formal announcement made, I feel it would be inappropriate for Zurich to comment. We believe the ZEDCard provides a convenient and flexible way for employees to pay for their food and drink in [on-site] restaurants and kiosks.”

While the benefits offering is likely to continue to develop depending on employee feedback, Steer and his team have worked hard to ensure the shared services centre continues to be capable of supporting and enhancing Zurich’s growth both organically and through possible acquisitions. “I’m proud of the fact that we’ve got a very efficient shared services operation [which] is very much e-enabled,” he explains†

Career profile

Pete Steer, HR payroll and benefits director, finds that the analytical side of benefits appeals to his financial background.

Despite beginning his career in a sales support role with Hambro Life after taking his A-Levels, Steer was attracted to HR by the variety of the role and the challenge of maximising value for a company through benefits.

“I have always liked numbers so I like the analytical side of payroll and benefits,” he explains.

After 10 years at Hambro Life in which he undertook various sales support roles, Steer moved across to its HR department. Since 1982, he has held various HR administration roles within the company through its stages of transition. Hambro Life expanded to become Allied Hambro, which subsequently became Allied Dunbar in 1985 when BAT Industries bought the company.

When Allied Dunbar and Eagle Star merged with Zurich in 1998, the three HR administrative functions were pulled together into a shared services operation, which saw Steer taking on his current role as UK HR payroll and benefits director of Zurich Financial Services.

Steer is content in his current role. “Zurich as a company is progressive in its globalisation. The opportunity, for example, to work on the global performance management system keeps me motivated and looking forward to coming to work, [as] variety is important,” he says.

Account for flexibility†

Alex Robinson, an accountant in the UK Life division of Zurich Financial Services (Zurich), enjoys the flexibility included within the organisation’s benefits package.

As well as appreciating the security provided by the overall protection package of the core benefits that he receives, Robinson makes additional payments to the final salary pension scheme to ensure a secure retirement. He has also chosen to buy an extra five days’ holiday for the last few years. “Something that’s quite important to me is work-life balance,” he explains.

Robinson also makes use of the discounts provided by retail vouchers when supermarket shopping. “The [supermarket] vouchers do actually give quite a good discount on the face value so it’s worth having,” he says.

Zurich’s online benefits modelling tool makes it easy for Robinson to take advantage of the company’s benefits offering. “The whole benefits package is online so you can look at your offer on there and check how much it is going to cost you against your salary. Talking to people outside of Zurich I don’t think there’s anything I can think of that other people get which we don’t.”

What are the benefits?

Healthcare and wellbeing

  • Income protection whereby the employer pays full salary up to six months and then two-thirds of salary each year for a further three years.
  • †• Discounts on four different dental plans for employees and their families through provider NDP.†

    • A health trust for employees and their families.

    †• Managers and clerical staff receive either 50% or 100% of their private health insurance paid for by the employer depending on their business division and grade. Staff can extend cover to their families through salary sacrifice.†

    • Healthcare cash plan.†

    • Health screening and mole screening available at discounted rates through salary sacrifice for employees and their families.†

    • Discounted gym membership.†

    • Employee assistance programme.†


    • A closed final salary pension scheme, to which existing members can still make additional contributions.†

    • Defined contribution scheme with age-related company contribution, for all other staff.†

    • Life assurance offered through both schemes.†

    Company cars

    • Discounted car-parking rates with preferential terms for car sharers.†

    • Car allowance is grade related. Eligible employees can choose from a traditional company car scheme, an employee car ownership scheme or a cash allowance.†

    • Business-need drivers have company cars for that purpose.†

    Work-life balance

    • Employees can buy or sell five days holiday, to a maximum of 30 days and minimum of 20.†

    • Childcare vouchers.

    †• Access to a helpline which supplies staff with information on locating childcare and nannies.†


    • Annual cash bonus depending on both the organisation’s and individual performance.†

    • Reward shares allocated to staff depending on their business unit results, for example, if the unit hits a target ‘profit’ agreed by individual CEOs.