Global law firm Withers survived an eventful year in 2013, including a dip in profit and a spate of merger talks with rival Speechly Bircham.
The organisation reported a 7% decline in net profit, down from £24.2 million in 2011/12 to £22.5 million in 2012/13, based on revenue of £117.8 million. Profits per equity partner also fell, from £386,000 to £370,000, over the same period, according to its financial results for 2012/13, published in July 2013, two months after merger talks with Speechly Bircham were called off.
These events could have threatened to reduce the time available for compensation and benefits manager Sharon Tebb to engage with Withers’ lawyers about their benefits as they strive to boost their financial performance. Their annual bonuses are largely based on their chargeable hours (see box).
But Tebb insists that Withers’ staff remain as interested in their benefits package as ever, and she works hard to ensure this remains the case. “We always have to be on the lookout for things that staff want,” she says. “It’s about that key skill, listening, and if we can deliver something, we do it.”
Tebb applied this philosophy to the organisation’s new flexible benefits plan, which was launched in January 2013. She started the project with a survey to ascertain employees’ needs and then used the findings to determine the range of benefits Withers would offer in the new plan, and how it would present and deliver them.
“The intranet had all the information on it, but not the strategy behind it,” she says. “Plus, we wanted to be able to show the true value of our benefits.”
Withers appointed benefits advisory firm Willis Employee Benefits to provide an online flexible benefits platform that covers four areas: protection and recognition; health and wellbeing; ethics and sustainability; and leisure and lifestyle.
The platform is powered by benefits technology provider Staffcare, and includes Withers’ group personal pension (GPP) scheme, which is provided by Friends Life, life assurance, dental insurance and childcare vouchers (see box).
The flex platform also gives staff access to employer-funded independent financial adviser (IFA) appointments, which are part of a financial education programme Withers launched last September. The programme was introduced following the results of a staff survey Tebb undertook as part of her flex project, which revealed that employees wanted more help and advice on retirement planning.
The programme offers employees 20-minute, ‘bite-sized’ group presentations on a financial topic of their choice once a month, delivered by Tebb or the employer’s IFA firm, Legal and Medical. “With lawyers, you have a short time to keep their interest,” says Tebb.
Withers has also been busy reviewing its benefits providers to ensure it is getting value for money.
“Benefits are incredibly important, but we have to ensure we are using them wisely,” says Tebb. “If providers want us to be loyal to them as a client, then they’ve got to offer us value for money.”
Following its risk benefits review in 2013, Withers switched group income protection provider from Unum to Friends Life.
And although the UK business remains Tebb’s focus, her review now extends to the benefits offered to employees in Withers’ 11 global offices, which span Europe, the US, the Caribbean and Asia.
Switzerland is her current focus. “We are just reviewing the Swiss pillar [social security] system because we’ve got everything where it should be in the UK,” she says. “We’re doing a spring clean of other countries.”
The Swiss social security system has three pillars: old age and survivors/disability insurance; an occupational pension plan; and private investment options.
Despite the size of Tebb’s remit, which she manages with just one other staff member as part of a 15-strong HR team, she remains committed to the firm’s personal touches, such as the continued provision of old-style benefits. These include £150 worth of wedding vouchers and £450 (plus VAT) towards the conveyancing costs of buying or selling a property.
Tebb says: “Even though we are a very progressive firm, we like to do something different.
“I think employers lose sight of those personal touches, or they’re so big that they can’t offer them. We like to do them because I think they make us stand out from other organisations.”
Tebb’s personal touches include having a regular dialogue with her workforce. For example, she phoned every employee who took the time to complete her staff survey, including those whose requested benefits she could not deliver, to explain which benefits she planned to introduce and why.
“If you don’t go back to staff, and you don’t deliver, they’ll be reluctant to complete one of your surveys again,” she says. “The way to encourage survey participation is to keep staff involved. It’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it because those staff then feel valued. We’re all in the boat together: we’re all trying to get on and do our jobs and make it a good place to work.”
Corporate social responsibility
Most recently, Tebb’s personal touches have involved her and her benefits and HR colleagues roaming the floors of Withers’ London office selling cakes to raise money for the charity the organisation supported in 2013, Macmillan Cancer Support.
Charity support is part of Withers’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme, which Tebb helped to create. It includes pro bono work for the employer’s lawyers and a work placement scheme in which support staff can get involved.
The two-week scheme was set up in November in partnership with Islington Council and City Action, a free volunteer matchmaking service for City-based employers and community organisations. It saw volunteers from Withers’ support teams train four local, unemployed parents in a range of business skills, such as interview techniques and appropriate business attire.
Tebb says the strategy is driven by increasing CSR interest from both clients and prospective employees. “When recruiting trainees, they’re asking what we’re doing with CSR,” she says. “Organisations that haven’t got some sort of scheme are not in a good place.”
Tebb’s part in helping to meet clients’ needs, through the CSR policy and her commitment to providing personal benefits touches, stands Withers’ staff in good stead for boosting the organisation’s future financial performance.
It also means Tebb has her work cut out for the next few years as she continues to review Withers’ benefits proposition and roll out new perks, which this year will include emergency child and elder care.
Reflecting on her 17-year career with the organisation, she says: “Every time I think I must move on and progress, the organisation gives me something new to do, and it’s like that every year. And it is very flexible. In a lot of big firms, staff are pigeonholed according to what they do because they’ve got so many different departments, but in our HR department, everybody mucks in.”
- A group personal pension in which Withers matches employee contributions up to 5%
- Life assurance is employer-funded and available at four-times salary, up to £750,000, which can be flexed up to eight-times salary or down to two-times salary through Withers’ flexible benefits scheme.
- Group income protection, employer-funded and up to 75% of salary.
- Private medical insurance, employer-funded.
- Dental insurance on a voluntary basis through salary sacrifice.
- Doctor’s consultation service, with each employee offered two employer-funded consultations a year.
- Eyecare vouchers, employer-funded.
- Employer-paid flu jabs.
- Health screening, with employees offered one employer-funded session every two years after two years’ service up to the age of 50. Over-50s are offered annual appointments.
- Corporate gym membership , employer-funded but reclaimed from employees through salary sacrifice.
- Employee assistance programme, employer-funded.
- Client referral commission based on 5% of all fees billed, employer-funded.
- Long service recognition, employer-funded.
- Performance-related bonus for support staff and a chargeable-hours bonus with an additional discretionary performance-driven element for exceptional performing fee-earners, employer-funded.
- Recruitment award worth £2,500 for the successful introduction of legal staff and £1,500 for secretarial and support staff, employer-funded.
- Will writing, discounted.
- Volunteering opportunities.
- Bikes for work.
- Workplace café.
- AA Fleet Scheme breakdown cover.
- Childcare vouchers.
- Computers and mobile phone scheme.
- Conveyancing subsidy, employer-funded.
- Passes to visit historic houses, employer-funded.
- Holiday trading, sell aspect employer-funded.
- Lifestyle discounts.
- Season ticket loan.
- Wedding/civil partner vouchers.
- Independent financial adviser appointments, with each employee offered an employer-funded consultation every two years.
Employee case study
Withers’ private medical insurance (PMI) has proved particularly useful for Karen Harrison, head cashier in the law firm’s finance team, over the past few years.
She used the cover for an operation to remove a cyst from her brain which was detected four years ago. “If I’d gone down the NHS route, it would have taken quite a while to get the surgery done, especially having just had a newborn baby, so it was really useful to be able to go private,” she says. ”It was quite a major operation, so it was the peace of mind, and obviously the follow-up has been amazing.”
Harrison is now using the health cover to investigate some stomach problems, for which she has been referred to a range of consultants. Withers funds the PMI and Harrison pays the annual excess fee of £150.
But it is the employer’s dental healthcare plan, from Denplan, that appeals most to Harrison’s husband. “He’s fastidious about his teeth, so for him it’s been great because he’s been able to go to our local private dentist and get the treatment done there for £55 a month, which is fully refunded,” she says.
Harrison also uses the childcare vouchers and season ticket loan on offer from Withers, but she particularly values the offer of an annual, employer-funded flu jab. “I use this each year because two years ago, just before my son’s second birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer. He’s now in remission, but I’m keen not to get a cold,” she says.
Harrison recently started donating £10 a month to the Make a Wish Foundation, which was established to grant the wishes of children and young people aged between three and 17 living with life-threatening illnesses.
“I’ve also got group life assurance, which is a wonderful comfort because it’s four times my salary,” shge says. “That is one less thing to worry about.”
Sharon Tebb was just 16 when she began her career as a junior secretary for professional services organisation KPMG, after learning to type on the government’s Youth Training Scheme.
“I marched up to KPMG with my CV and a little folder of two-line letters that I’d typed and got an interview,” she says. “It’s quite embarrassing, really; I think they felt sorry for me.”
Within 18 months, she was promoted to senior secretary and then to the newly-created role of departmental supervisor at the age of 24.
But it was not until she was assigned to work for two of KPMG’s senior partners, who looked after training and development and HR, respectively, that Tebb began to develop an interest in HR and employee benefits. “I was there for years and it was a fantastic employer with brilliant benefits, but one day I decided I didn’t want to be somewhere for too long,” she says.
An impromptu trip to a local recruitment agency resulted in Tebb joining Withers as personal assistant to the director of personnel and administration and the director of training in 1996. “I’ve been here a long time, but every year is different,” she says.
Withers at a glance
Withers is a global law firm that employs more than 100 partners and over 700 staff in 11 offices spread across Europe, US, the Caribbean and Asia.
Its UK workforce numbers 424, excluding fixed-term, contract-based staff and self-employed consultants, who are based in London, where the organisation was founded in 1896.
Withers represents a range of the world’s wealthiest individuals and families.
The average age of its employees is 39 and the average length of service is 10.5 years. The majority (63.4%) of its workforce is female.
Business objectives impacting benefits
- Recruit, attract, retain and, most importantly, engage key talent.
- Promote the organisation’s corporate and social responsibility agenda.
- Optimise the health and wellbeing of the workforce.