Countrywide Group, the UK’s largest property services group, began the task of building a reward function in September 2014, when it drafted in Neil Goodwin, head of reward.
He joined on the brink of a group-wide overhaul at the FTSE 250-listed group, which until then had just an operational human resource function in place to support its 12,000-strong workforce.
The overhaul saw the appointment of a new group chief executive officer, Alison Platt, a shake-up of the group’s senior management and executive and non-executive boards, and a restructure of the organisation’s estate agency divisions to create a single retail unit comprising its previously very separate sales and lettings businesses. The retail unit now operates alongside the group’s other property service units, which include auctions, estate management, conveyancing and financial services.
The changes are part of a new corporate strategy launched in 2015 entitled ‘Building our future’. The strategy is designed to create an engaging, people-focused business that is recognised as one of the UK’s best employers with an operating profit of £250 million by 2020, although it has yet to identify the mechanism by which ‘best’ will be measured, says Goodwin.
“The core of our strategy is to focus on customers and employees and to understand the links between the two,” he adds. “It’s about focusing on delivering an excellent customer experience and recognising that we need to ensure we’ve got a great environment internally for our staff to flourish.”
Countrywide, which floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2013, reported an operating profit of £53.8 million for the 12 months to 31 December 2015, hence the importance of Goodwin’s role in helping the business to grow.
Goodwin kicked off his reward function challenge by establishing a set of four reward principles: competitiveness, fairness, responsibility, and straightforwardness. He then undertook a three-part benefits project, based on these principles, which started with a cost-efficiency drive across the group’s whole benefits package, which includes life assurance, group income protection (GIP), private medical insurance (PMI), a bikes-for-work scheme, and 20-25 days holiday per year. Goodwin says: “We looked at cost efficiencies, partly to show how reward can add value, but also to try to fund any future investment within the function.”
Cost efficiencies include a six-figure saving as a result of working more closely with the group’s benefits broker, Aon Employee Benefits, to harmonise some of the benefits on offer to staff and by changing the provider of two of the organisation’s benefits. Unum now provides Countrywide’s group income protection (GIP) cover, as well as a standalone employee assistance programme (EAP).
Life assurance is available to all Countrywide staff, and GIP is available to staff at senior manager pay grade or above only, with the exception of some lower-grade staff with legacy benefits entitlements granted by businesses that Countrywide has acquired.
Making use of Countrywide’s services
Part two of Goodwin’s cost-efficiency drive saw him leverage existing group benefits. This included an overhaul of the way in which Countrywide’s own products and services, such as mortgage services or conveyancing, are used as part of its benefits package.
As a result, staff and close family members can now access the rebranded ‘Under one roof’ scheme from day one of joining the group and use just one service, whereas previously they had to have 12 months’ service and use a minimum of two services in order to do so. “The advantage of the scheme is that employees are advocates of our own products and it is also a great source of revenue for the group,” says Goodwin.
The scheme has generated more than £269,000 for the employer and saved employees themselves in excess of £320,000 as a result of more than 565 staff using more than 1,127 services.
Goodwin has also overhauled the group’s share incentive plan (Sip). In March, the Sip, which is provided by Capita Asset Employee Benefits, was branded ‘Sharing our future’ and plan access was improved. All employees are now able to join the scheme after 12 months’ service instead of 18 months, and Countrywide now grants two shares for every three shares staff buy, whereas previously it granted just one share for every two purchased.
In addition, staff now have two windows in which to join the scheme each year, March and October, whereas previously they had just one window in March.
Benefits alignment project
The final part of Goodwin’s cost-efficiency drive focused on benefits alignment. For example, the group’s PMI policy, provided by Axa PPP Healthcare, has seen the six previous tiers of cover condensed to two: one for senior management and the other for remaining management.
The alignment of Countrywide’s benefits and reward package has been particularly challenging for Goodwin given the enormity and diversity of the organisation.
Countrywide employs more than 12,000 UK staff working across more than 50 brands, each operating in very different markets and with very different corporate cultures. For example, estate agency brands range from Countrywide North Airdrie in Scotland, which sells properties priced as low as £50,000, to John D Wood and Co, which sells multimillion pound properties across London and overseas. This means that the commission that the group’s agents can earn varies hugely across the group.
Goodwin’s task has been further complicated by the fact that Countrywide has been created from a number of acquisitions, with each new business bringing its own approach to benefits and reward, as well as its own autonomous approach to business.
“[Alignment success] is about being as transparent as we can be,” explains Goodwin. “Most employees see a positive change. Only some see a negative change. The key is to engage closely with each business unit and be honest about our approach and explain why we’re making the changes.”
Once this alignment challenge is complete, Goodwin will consider implementing a voluntary benefits platform and total reward statements for the workforce, which means that it will be all systems go for him for yet another year. But it seems that this is just the way that he likes it, which is great news for Countrywide as it works towards achieving its profit goal in 2020.
Business objectives impacting benefits
- Become one of the UK’s best employers by creating a people-focused business that offers excellent customer service.
- Build a broad‐based business that can perform well and deliver robust shareholder returns throughout the market cycle.
- Generate an operating profit of £250 million by 2020.
Career history: Neil Goodwin, head of reward at Countrywide Group
Neil Goodwin joined Countrywide Group in September 2014 as reward manager and was promoted to head of reward within just 11 months, in August 2015.
At the time, Goodwin was in search of a new challenge and jumped at the opportunity to establish a reward function at a FTSE-listed organisation.
Prior to this, he worked at publisher Macmillan Science and Education as reward manager for just over two years, after spending a similar amount of time as reward consultant at Hutchison 3G.
Since joining Countrywide, Goodwin has been working hard on aligning the group’s reward and benefits package, which has involved leveraging the value of the employer’s own services, such as conveyancing and mortgage broking, for staff.
Similar work he undertook at 3G Hutchison, where the organisation offered its mobile phones as a staff perk, stood him in good stead for the project.
Countrywide Group at a glance
Countrywide is a property services organisation and the largest estate agency in the UK. The group’s services range from estate and lettings agency through to conveyancing and mortgage broking.
The group has been created through acquisition and now employs around 12,000 staff, who have an average age of 33 and are 44% female and 56% male. The average tenure of employees is 18 months.
The benefits offered by Countrywide
- Group stakeholder pension scheme for 5,000 managers.
- Auto-enrolment pension scheme provided by the National Employment Savings Trust (Nest) for the remaining 7,000 employees, with contribution levels at 1% for employer and 1% for staff.
Healthcare and wellbeing
- Life assurance, employer-paid for all staff at four-times salary for management, and at two-times salary for other staff.
- Group income protection, employer-paid for senior managers and some lower-grade employees with legacy entitlements.
- Private medical insurance, employer-paid in two tiers: one for senior management, one for other management.
- Eyecare, employer-paid.
- Personal accident insurance, employer-paid.
- Voluntary health cash plan.
- Voluntary health screening.
- Employee assistance programme, employer-paid.
- Share incentive plan (Sip).
- Give-as-you-earn scheme.
- Season ticket loan.
- 20 to 25 days’ holiday as standard.
- Childcare vouchers.
- Subsidised canteen at UK headquarters.
- Retail discount scheme.
- Bikes-for-work scheme.
- Retail partner offers.
- Discounted Countrywide Group services.