High-fliers of the benefits industry share the secrets of their success
The benefits industry has grown significantly over the last decade. As benefits professionals have been expected to deal with the increasing demands placed upon them by such a fast-moving marketplace, their status within organisations has increased exponentially. As a result, a huge wealth of talent now exists among high-flying benefits professionals, placing them in the upper echelons of the human resources industry.
Last month, 26 of the cream of the crop in the benefits industry gathered at Employee Benefits’ offices to help us put together this cover story, which is designed to showcase their talent and achievements. This elite group included Employee Benefits award winners, speakers at events such as this month’s Employee Benefits Live, and those who have become recognised in the industry as experts in their field. Along the way, these individuals shared just what makes them tick, their career highlights and achievements, as well as advice and guidance for those aspiring to reach the same professional heights.
Interviews conducted by: Debbie Lovewell, Nicola Sullivan and Tom Washington.
Neal Blackshire, benefits and compensation manager at McDonald’s Restaurants, began his career at more than 26 years ago when he took on a part-time job serving in a restaurant while still at school. Moving up the career ladder swiftly, he became an area manager of London restaurants before seizing the opportunity to work internally in the HR team.
“The great thing about McDonald’s is we recognise talent and then try to keep it in the business,” he says.
Having studied accountancy at university, Blackshire rates numeracy skills as one of the most important attributes of a reward professional.
“My favourite aspect of the job is all the costing and modelling at the start of a project,” he says.
John Chilman, group reward and pensions director at First Group, believes reward professionals need to have a commercial edge as well as an ability to influence key decisionmakers.
This is particularly important when seeking management buy-in for new schemes or changes to benefits. He also stresses the importance of being aware of how projects add value to an organisation. “If what you are doing does not add value, then don’t do it,” he says.
As a qualified accountant, Chilman worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers between 1989 and 1993. Later, he became head of management accounting and information development at Shell. He then took on a reward role with FirstGroup, after which he became head of reward at HBOS, before returning to FirstGroup as group reward and pensions director.
FirstGroup won the award for Benefits team of the year at this year’s Employee Benefits Awards.
Julia Clay, group reward manager at Bupa, has drawn on her past experience as a schoolteacher when dealing with the firm’s benefits package. She stands by good, clear communication to maximise the value of benefits – a skill she doubtless utilised during her eightyear stint as a maths teacher at boys’ schools in Dulwich and Oxford in the 1980s.
“Communication is key for making benefits work properly,” she says. “I really enjoy introducing a new benefit that I know employees will really appreciate.”
Before joining Bupa in 2006, Clay held a number of high-profile roles, including compensation and benefits manager (maternity cover) at BBC Worldwide and a one-year contract at Capgemini, where she was flexible benefits manager.
As befits an international compensation and benefits practitioner, Debra Corey, senior director, compensation and benefits, EMEA, at Quintiles has gained practical experience on both sides of the Atlantic. She began her career in compensation in the US, where she took a part-time job in her university’s benefits department while still studying.
After going on to hold compensation roles at companies including First Fidelity Bank, ADP and Office Depot, she made the moves across to both benefits and the UK when she joined retail giant Gap. Corey cites this move into the international arena as her greatest achievement, despite it also posing one of the biggest challenges she has had to overcome, particularly in terms of learning about different countries and cultures.
“Living for 30 years in the States and only knowing one way of dealing with people, then suddenly being thrown into a multinational environment was a challenge,” she says.
To reach the level she has attained, Corey believes benefits professionals need certain key attributes. “You need to be openminded, flexible, a business partner [within the organisation] and not afraid to make mistakes,” she says.
Ricky D’Ash, remuneration specialist at Equity Insurance Group, admits he ended up working in benefits completely by mistake, but since landing his first role in the field as HR manager at Woolwich Direct, he has not looked back.
D’Ash has since worked for Barclays Bank, Prudential and Unisys, and in July started a new role as a remuneration specialist at Equity Insurance Group.
He says his ability to communicate with colleagues at all levels, from company chairman to ground-level staff, has stood him in good stead.
His tip to any budding reward managers is not to be afraid of the complex calculations the role sometimes involves.
“A lot of HR professionals are scared of compensation and benefits because of Excel, but they should not be,” he adds.
Sara Davies, reward director at Ladbrokes, finds gratification in employees’ enthusiasm about new elements of their reward package.
She says creating reward schemes that make a difference to people’s lives is the reason she goes to work. And her approach is certainly paying off. At this year’s Employee Benefits Awards, Ladbrokes scooped the prize for Most effective motivation or incentive strategy, as well as the overall Grand Prix award.
But working in reward does not come without its challenges, says Davies. During a five-year stint as reward controller at Wickes, she was involved in harmonising the packages of three businesses into one after Wickes was acquired by Focus Group in 2000 and then Travis Perkins in 2005. “This was extremely challenging and very difficult, as I was not just doing benefits and contracts. There was also the grading structure and bonus schemes, as well as three different medical schemes.”
Tim Fevyer, director of reward and policy at Specsavers, formerly head of pay policy and employee benefits at Lloyds TSB, moved to the opticians in April to become its director of reward and policy. His new job is setting him some fascinating challenges.
“Specsavers is a really commercial organisation, but is also people-focused,” he says. But Fevyer says his biggest achievement to date is implementing a flexible benefits scheme while at Lloyds TSB, scooping two Employee Benefits awards along the way. “To get the business to fork out a lot of money, you need a very strong business case for flex,” he says. “It has had a really positive influence on the company and its staff.”
Mary Giles, compensation and benefits, and HR operations manager at Microsoft, believes a can-do attitude and persistence are two of the characteristics needed for a successful career in benefits. She has certainly applied this philosophy to her own career. It was while working as an HR business partner at Microsoft that she leapt at the chance to tackle the company’s benefits.
“There was an opportunity to do something with benefits, but Microsoft didn’t have a benefits leader, so I took it on,” she says. “I have never looked back.”
Giles has certainly made an impression on the computing giant, moving its perks from a onesize- fits-all package to a much more flexible approach. In doing so, she has won numerous awards, including a clutch of Employee Benefits gongs, in areas such as flexible benefits, communications and, last year, Most effective company car strategy.
Her determination to overcome obstacles saw her introduce a workplace nursery despite fierce opposition, which was recently the subject of Channel Four’s short film series Three-Minute Wonder.
Lawyer-turned-HR professional Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, director of HR at White and Case, believes commercial awareness and an eye for detail are important qualities for benefits professionals to have. “It is important to be commercially aware,” she says.
“Don’t just do something for the sake of it. Do it because you understand what you are going to achieve by doing it.”
Griffiths-Lambeth has had a remarkably varied career, working as a consultant for Michael Page in the 1990s after a stint in the City as a dealer at Cargill, Capcom and Cal. In 2005, she became head of talent, resourcing and management information for Lloyds TSB. She was also one of the four founders of credit card operations firm Create Services.
At this year’s Employee Benefits Awards, White and Case scooped the award for Most effective use of a flexible benefits plan.
Richard Higginson, head of reward at Towry Law, often feels a “Victor Meldrew approach” is the only way to deal with the day-today rigours of a career in benefits.
A fictional grumpy pensioner may not seem the most likely role model for a high-flying benefits professional, but perhaps it is fitting for a man who arrived in benefits via “a series of unfortunate accidents”.
Despite never intending to work in compensation and benefits, Higginson has made his mark on the industry, citing highprofile achievements such as the merging of SmithKline Beecham’s and Glaxo Wellcome’s reward packages as a career highlight.
In his climb up the ladder, Higginson has learnt knowledge is most definitely power. “You really do need a head for the technical side, such as salary data, pensions and risk benefits,” he says. “You cannot just rely on general knowledge. If you have got people above you, you are OK. But if you want to get to a position where you are running things, you have to understand it.”
Linda Hilliard, UK reward manager at Informa, cites winning this year’s Employee Benefits Award for Most effective health and wellbeing strategy as one of her proudest career moments.
“The industry status is a huge accolade,” she says.
Hilliard says research is key to developing a winning reward strategy. “You need to be familiar with the marketplace and what other employers are offering.”
She also believes in having courage in her convictions. “I always think, never take the first or second proposal as there is always room for negotiation. Never underestimate your buying power, especially in recession.”
Hilliard arrived in benefits after a long period in generalist HR. “I had an opportunity to specialise in benefits,” she says.
“This role allowed me to work across the business, which was really appealing.”
Jeremy Hinds, head of people and reward at Pret A Manger, wants to “surprise and excite” the sandwich chain’s employees with benefits to keep them motivated. He believes offering variety is key. “Employers need to give employees a really good reason not to leave the organisation,” he says.
One of the biggest challenges Hinds that faces in his current role is looking at ways to set up a pension scheme from scratch, that suits the needs of a diverse workforce (see employer profile, page 50).
Before joining Pret A Manger in July 2009, Hinds worked as HR operations manager at law firm SJ Berwin. Before that, he worked as group payroll and benefits manager for Esporta Health Clubs, which he joined in 2005.
Ruth Hutchison, group reward director at Whitbread, says that sometimes the best way to get ahead in the benefits industry is to step outside the HR function altogether and gain some broader business experience.
This can enable benefits professionals to gain a deeper knowledge of business objectives and a clearer commercial understanding, both of which may prove invaluable when it comes to devising reward packages.
Hutchison believes the way to get ahead in the industry is to remain open-minded about your career opportunities. She speaks from experience because she twice turned down her current job before taking the time to reflect on the situation and finally accept the position.
“Make the time to talk to people who have done the job before,” she advises. “Know what you are good at and what your strengths are.”
Zara Loughrey, reward director at The VT Group, believes the ability to laugh is a valuable attribute, both for herself and others involved in reward and benefits. But although Loughrey may face the challenges of her job with a smile on her face, she also believes a good understanding of the technical side of benefits, along with an ability to communicate in plain English, and good numerical skills are key skills to getting the job done.
Some of the tasks that have kept Loughrey busy this year include implementing salary increases and bonus structures.
One of her favourite aspects of her job is to see her plans come to fruition. “It is great to see something you have worked on, designed and implemented, working,” she says.
As well as vast practical experience, Loughrey also has an academic background in HR, having gained a Masters degree in HR and public relations.
Ken Lawrie, head of reward at EasyJet, scooped an Employee Benefits Award in 2006 for Most effective all-employee share scheme strategy, a project that remains his finest moment to date. Lawrie was also shortlisted for Compensation and benefits professional of the year at this year’s awards.
His biggest challenge came at a previous employer, engineering firm Bechtel, where he implemented an international assignment plan for almost 2,500 expatriates worldwide. The plan had to bring the different needs for each country and geographical differences together into one coherent scheme.
With any project, reward professionals must have their finger on the pulse of an organisation, says Lawrie. “We have to try to understand the business we are in. Whatever the theory behind a benefit, it must be appropriate for a specific organisation.”
Tina Odell, pension manager at Sony UK, believes tenacity, understanding and strong business acumen are key to success, while networking and reading Employee Benefits magazine do not do any harm either.
She says her biggest achievement is getting to grips with ever-changing pensions legislation.
“At times, it has been impossible,” Odell explains.” This government has passed more pieces of legislation in its time than any other. No one stands a chance of turning the changes into reality on a practical level.”
Odell’s favourite part of her job is the satisfaction of making a real difference, and the opportunity to leave a legacy in the shape and culture of an organisation.
Dev Raval, director of reward at BSkyB, believes it is important for benefits professionals to ensure they have the right levels of resources and finance to achieve their objectives. “It is important to manage your challenges and find a balance between short-term and long-term gains,” he explains.
One of Raval’s biggest challenges to date came during his time at SmithKline Beecham, which underwent a merger to create GlaxoSmithKline.
During that time, Raval was involved in the daunting process of transferring 25,000 UK-based staff onto new employment terms and conditions.
Lecturing on the history of art and design, and running a guesthouse in France are not the most obvious routes to a career in benefits, but this is exactly how Jane Richards, reward manager at †BDO Stoy Hayward, arrived in the profession. She had already moved into compensation when a visit to the Employee Benefits exhibition and conference sparked her interest in benefits.
She has never looked back. Richards is particularly proud of her work since joining BDO Stoy Hayward in 2006, which has seen her build its reward function from scratch. “We have almost got to a point where we have got the best benefits and best service at the best cost [for the company],” she says.
Richards’ advice for aspiring high-fliers is: “Just get involved in everything. Network loads – find out what other people are doing.”
Unlike Lee Smith, benefits manager at Bovis Lend Lease, not many benefits professionals can say they arrived at the top via a career in the Royal Navy.
On leaving the navy, Smith worked in a series of back-office functions before arriving at Bovis Lend Lease as share plans manager nearly eight years ago. Since then, he has moved rapidly up the profession, building his role along the way. It is little wonder he cites this as his greatest achievement.
Smith believes the wealth of specialised knowledge he has acquired during his benefits career has been vital to his success.
“You have to have an understanding of what is covered in the industry. With the field we are in, it can apply to any workforce. The principles stay the same. It’s very specialised and requires an understanding of the workforce.”
When it comes to seeking inspiration, Smith looks outside the industry. “I am inspired by people who have faced adversity and come through it,” he says.
Richard Tyler, compensation and benefits and HRIS manager at Alcatel Lucent, is inspired by entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson. Tyler himself certainly takes a spirited, plucky approach to the day-to-day challenges of a career in reward.
Admitting that it can be tricky to get senior management to buy into projects, he advises others to prove that what they are doing is strategic and adds value, rather than being a drain on the organisation. “You have got to believe in yourself and have a very good business case,” he explains. “Believe in what you are doing, think ahead and be strategic.”
The key qualities Tyler values in reward professionals include patience, passion, and even the occasional bout of madness. “If you are going to do something, be sure to do it to your best ability, or don’t do it at all,” he says.
Ingrid Waterfield, UK head of reward at KPMG, spent much of her early career in client-facing roles working on share schemes, executive pay and employment tax for KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers before moving to an internal reward role at the former.
She says her experience with external clients has been priceless, but she now enjoys seeing a project develop and be implemented, from start to finish.
Waterfield advises junior reward professionals to try to get as broad an HR experience as possible. “You need to understand what all the tax and cost implications are of reward across the whole business, especially what it means for employees on the ground,” she says.
Colin Watt, head of reward and representation at Telefonica O2 UK, believes creativity and the ability to spot an opportunity are vital traits for a successful career in reward.
“You don’t get that much money to spend, so it has to be spent wisely,” he says.
Before joining O2, Watt spent five years at Co-operative Financial Services as head of employee relations, where he focused on renegotiating schemes and benefits for staff.
His biggest achievement to date is implementing O2’s new benefits portal, O2Rewards.com, which covers all the company’s perks, giving staff at the telecoms firm a “unique package” in the process. “Every time I look at it, I am really proud,” he says.
Last month saw Matthew Webb, head of international benefits at Thomson Reuters, return to the international benefits arena when he moved from investment bank UBS to Thomson Reuters. This isn’t Webb’s first foray into international benefits. He previously held an international pensions role at British Airways and international reward posts at Merrill Lynch.
While working at the latter, he took on projects that saw him move to locations such as Japan. He says the cultural differences proved particularly challenging. Webb says the impact benefits professionals can have on a workforce is particularly rewarding.
“It is nice to be in a role where what you are doing has value and helps people.”
For someone who entered the benefits industry via the pensions world, that is perhaps not surprising Webb still finds inspiration in the pensions sector. “I never cease to be amazed by [pensions industry figure] Alan Pickering and Steve Delo [former president of the Pensions Management Institute] in terms of presentation skills,” he says. “I have been listening to Steve ever since I have been in pensions.”
Carolyn Wilkinson, senior employee benefits manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers, rose to her current position of senior employee benefits manager after joining the company as a secretary 30 years ago.
While with PWC, she grabbed every opportunity she could to become involved with benefits-related work. When it become clear she had a strong aptitude in this area, it was not long before she started climbing up the benefits ladder.
And Wilkinson’s hard work has certainly paid off. This year, PWC carried off the Graduate employer of the year award for the fifth year running in The Times’ annual survey.
Wilkinson loves the varied nature of her job. “I have the opportunity to meet lots of different people externally to do something that affects all staff,” she says.
“Nothing ever goes still – there is always something new happening that I can consider.”
Although Ian Wright, compensation and benefits director, Europe and Asia Pacific at Novell fell into the world of benefits by accident, he has certainly not left the rest of his career to chance.
Since landing his first job in the industry as senior HR and compensation consultant at Watson Wyatt back in 1990, he has gained extensive experience in compensation and benefits at an international level.
Wright, whose key positions have included vice-president for benefits at JP Morgan Chase and compensation manager for Europe at SAP, is not daunted by the legalities and practicalities of managing benefits internationally.
“I like getting involved in the variety of different benefits regulations around the world in my role covering Europe and Asia,” he says. “The employees are very different in each country, as is the law.”
Anthony York, head of reward at Punch Taverns, has held this position since 2005. He was previously a consultant for Towers Perrin for six years, and the persuasive skills he learned in that role have played a key part in helping him become the reward professional he is today.
With York’s help, Punch Taverns scooped the gong for Most effective all-employee share strategy at last year’s Employee Benefits Awards.
He puts much of his success down to the team he has brought together at Punch Taverns.
“My team is incredibly engaged,” says York. “I believe it is vital to get the right team around you to fill in any gaps in your own skillset.”