Interview with Susan Hughes, policy manager of UK pensions and benefits at BP

The challenges of changing pensions legislation have not prevented Susan Hughes, policy manager of UK pensions and benefits at BP, from achieving a good work-life balance

Susan Hughes, policy manager of UK pensions and benefits at BP, has perfected the work-life balance. At home on her converted farm in Hertfordshire, where she lives with her husband and three teenage daughters, she tends to six chickens and enjoys spending weekends with the family.

At work, she tackles the challenges of the 2012 pension reforms, which require automatic enrolment of staff into an occupational scheme and the changes to pension tax relief for high earners. Hughes currently spends 75% of her time working on these tax changes, which will reduce the annual allowance to £50,000 when they come into effect on 6 April 2011.†

“It is really going to make a difference to how organisations view their reward strategy and where pensions fit into that,” she says. “From a technical perspective, we are trying to understand what the legislation is getting at, interpreting that and how it impacts on current reward.”

Hughes, who has to implement the legislation in an extremely tight timeline, says the change will also affect BP’s flexible benefits scheme and payroll processes.

Auto-enrolling staff into a pension scheme sets another challenge, says Hughes. “It is difficult for large organisations because of the process and the long lead times to get things changed. As a minimum, organisations have to see if they are compliant, and test that against what they offer currently. A lot of this is process-driven, quite technical and without a huge amount of added value.”

Hughes fell into pensions by accident. She joined Abbey National (now Santander) as a graduate and was placed, at random, into corporate pensions. “Abbey National had its own in-house pension scheme and, after that, I did another six-month placement with it. Then a vacancy came up, I applied and I got it,” she says.

Pensions path

After nearly six years with the building society and gaining a number of qualifications, such as the 10 exams then offered by the Pensions Management Institute, she felt she was too far along the pensions path to turn back.

Hughes has also worked on share schemes and private healthcare, but it has only been in the past three years that she has moved into this broader arena. “Working with a large company like BP gives you the opportunity to do a lot of different things,” she says. “Even though I have worked here for 13 years, not one year has ever been the same as the last.”

Hughes has also had the opportunity to design a policy for BP’s flexible benefits scheme, launched in April 2010. But despite her foray into other aspects of BP’s benefits, Hughes acknowledges her job is focused mainly on pensions. In the UK, the energy firm has a range of pension plans, both defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC), serving 70,000 members. “I cannot think of a moment when it has been quiet,” she says. “Pensions are technically difficult and constantly changing.”

But Hughes is still able to enjoy a comfortable work-life balance. “It is the combination of having a great, well-balanced home and family life,” she says. “My biggest achievement is having a lovely family and a job that I love to get up and go to every day.”

Curriculum vitae

1998-present: policy manager of UK pensions and benefits, BP

1989-1998: pensions manager and secretary to trustee board, ITN

1984-1989: pensions officer, Abbey National (now Santander)


How would you describe yourself? I am a loyal person. I have had three employers over my career to date. I am good at picking something up from a blank piece of paper and seeing it through. I do not think I am necessarily particularly good at the details, but I am good at following things through.

What is your working week like? I split my time between our two main offices. I operate three days in Sunbury-on-Thames and two days in St James’ Park in London, driving to Sunbury and catching a train into London. As a consequence, I do things a lot on the go, like making phone calls and reading things on the train.

What is your favourite benefit? One of my favourite benefits is corporate-paid healthcare for all staff, with the ability to have a health screening every three years. We recognised we were out of kilter with the rest of the market.

What are your hobbies/interests? I am family-oriented. I have three teenage girls and we have great fun. I recently got into poultry, so that takes up quite a lot of our time. My other half does a lot of travelling, so, come the weekend, we tend to relax around the house reading. I also like skiing.

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