Interview with Seth Russell, director of reward at Hutchison 3G

Life working as a benefits professional in the oil and gas sector, financial services, telecoms, media, the civil service and the National Health Service (NHS) should, on the face of it, be very different. However, for Seth Russell, director of reward at mobile phone operator Hutchison 3G, who has worked in them all, “everything is pretty much the same”.

“Fundamentally what compensation and benefits professionals are trying to do is attract, retain and engage the type of talent we need in the business we are operating in, and that is the same [whether] you are in the NHS or in telecoms. However, the tools that you have available to you are quite different,” explains Russell, who started out working in human resources in the public sector in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department and then at the Maidstone Health Authority before moving to the private sector to specialise in reward working for British Gas, Citibank, Visa International, BBC Worldwide, BP and Hutchison 3G, which trades as 3.

However, the numbers involved in the banking sector stood out for Russell when it came to salaries and bonuses, making it tricky to identify the relevant performance criteria for cash-based bonus schemes because of the degree of risk organisations are exposed to. “Bonus plans, if they are designed properly, do drive behaviours. In the City, you are seriously driving behaviours,” says Russell. “So the checks and balances have to be carefully thought through.”

One other differentiating factor between organisations is their size. “The civil service and the NHS were very bureaucratic, so was British Gas,” he says. “One of the great things about 3 is we have just over 3,000 staff in the UK and are privately owned as well, which gives us quite a lot of autonomy, so we can make decisions pretty quickly.”

Since joining Hutchison 3G in January last year, Russell has implemented holiday trading and introduced free dongles, otherwise known as USB modems, so staff can have free access to mobile broadband at home or at work.

This year, he plans to extend the firm’s flexible benefits scheme, which is currently only available to employees in its retail and call centre operation, to the 700 staff at head office. He is also trying to get the telecoms company’s relatively young workforce better engaged with the benefits on offer, in particular, the group personal pension plan (GPP). “People in their late teens [and] early twenties don’t tend to be very interested in pensions and traditional benefits. [However], I think we have a moral obligation to encourage them to save for the future.”

Head office staff who contribute 2% of their salary to the GPP are entitled to 8% in employer contributions, while call centre and retail employees do not have to contribute anything to get 3%. Russell is looking at making the pension for this latter group of employees compulsory depending on the cost, ahead of government plans for auto-enrolment and compulsory employer pension contributions, due in 2012.

Whatever changes he does introduce, keeping communication simple and overcoming access problems is key. While working at the gas exploration arm of British Gas, Russell travelled offshore to oil rigs to communicate a new employment contract to engineers and middle management that moved them off nationally-negotiated terms to performance-related individual contracts. Similarly, at 3, he has embraced innovative ways to communicate with staff based at its 306 stores by sending videos to their phones.

A great advocate of networking, Russell says it helps him find solutions to problems. “Just having that network of people to fall back on and bounce ideas off is invaluable.”


Who has influenced your career?
I have been lucky to work with lots of very good people either inside the company or in the industry generally. One of the fantastic things in the reward and benefits profession is that people are really open, helpful and sharing.

What is your favourite benefit?
Professionally, it is flexible holiday. It is one of those benefits that does not cost a lot to do but gives people a lot of value.

How would you describe yourself?
Calm and innovative. My boss thinks that it is one of my attributes that I am unflappable. I also try to be innovative.

What do you do outside of work?
I used to be a very keen rugby player, but I am too old nowadays so I took up the martial art T’ai Chi.

Curriculum Vitae
Hutchison 3G – director of reward
2006-2007 BP International – global reward consultant
1999-2006 BBC Worldwide – head of remuneration and benefits
1997-1999 Visa International – compensation and benefits manager
1996-1997 Citibank – senior compensation consultant
1989-1996 British Gas – numerous roles, ending up as HR manager (remuneration) for its gas exploration and production arm 1987-1989 Maidstone Health Authority – senior personnel officer
1983-1987 Treasury Solicitor’s Department – personnel officer