A huge regeneration project needed the right talent to succeed – and Peel Port’s reward manager Amanda Willis knew what to do. Peter Crush reports


In just a few months, Liverpool 2 – the long awaited £300m extension to the famous Seaforth Dock in Liverpool – will be the new unloading destination for the world’s largest supertankers. It’s a civil engineering project of epic proportions: one that has reclaimed 30 acres of silted-up wasteland, and which has been built with 30,000 cubic metres of cement and 19,000 tonnes of steel. The 854m deep water quay created will allow the Peel Ports-run operation to double the number of sea containers it can handle from 750,000 to 1.5 million pa.

In comparison, Peel Port’s HR team might seem small, but the truth is quite different, according to Amanda Willis, head of reward. The HR team has pulled off what many in benefits regard as a result of epic proportions too – a workforce well-versed in pensions.

“With several large investment projects in the pipeline, it was important to ensure the HR strategy aligned to the Group’s business plan,” she says. “The group HR director implemented a strategy for change, part of which was to review and revise the existing compensation and benefits strategy for the Group.” To help accomplish this, the group HR director put in place a new HR Shared Services team, a Pensions and Reward team, and a Talent team alongside HR Business Partners.

The resulting project – which led to it winning Reward’s Best Pension Communications VIB award earlier this year – has been an overhaul of a 6% matched pension that only a third of staff were involved with, to introduce a new minimum contribution pension that would be phased in over two years: from 3% to 4% and then to 5%, which Peel Ports would then match, too.

The 3% minimum contribution level came in during 2014, 4% came at the start of this year, and 5% will be introduced from 31 December 2015. Moreover, employees can contribute between 5-10% themselves, which will be matched, too.

The results have been stunning: 90% take-up so far, with average total contributions at between 14-15%, and 30% contributing the full 10% staff maximum.

“There were specific things we did to communicate the pensions changes – like amending our Investment Matters booklet, and creating a pensions and benefits newsletter to support employees with what’s happening in the marketplace generally,” says Willis.

“Each new minimum contribution change was accompanied by giving staff the chance to talk to a pensions professional who could demonstrate that an extra 1% wasn’t going to negatively impact their lives ‘now’ [someone on £20,000 would pay an extra £11 per month net], but would dramatically change their future lives.”

During the change from 3% to 4% minimum contributions, any staff who wanted to had the chance to opt out but, according to Willis, no-one did – a fact she says is testament to the skills of the HR and communications teams.

When auto-enrolment itself actually started, all new joiners went straight on to the 5% rate. Since the start of the year, she says only one person opted out.

Willis argues the pension changes have been successful because communications around these don’t just focus on pensions, but on the rest of the benefits mix and the totality of financial decisions staff may also need to take – all through its flexible benefits portal.

“We introduced flexible benefits last year,” she says. “Here, staff can pay for their pension via salary sacrifice, so we explain what this is. The way benefits relate to each other is also explained, because some are linked to the pension.

“For example, our life assurance starts at 2x salary, but becomes 4x salary if staff become part of the pensions scheme. Then, there’s also options to flex up life assurance to 8x salary – something we’ve found is very popular.”

There are three main strands to Peel Ports’ reward strategy: protection – the pension, life assurance and also critical illness cover that it offers; health management; and lifestyle benefits.

The health management component includes a health cash plan. “We introduced the Medicash cash plan – mainly because its docker ‘penny in the pound fund’ roots, resonate with us – and staff can again decide to flex up the basic offering more if they want to, and around 5-10% do.”

She adds: “On our lifestyle benefits, we provide the sorts of things that are becoming standard: subsidised gym, childcare vouchers, and offers, like last year’s main one – which was being able to give staff 5% off an iPad.” The iPad scheme was hugely popular – around 10% of staff took advantage of it.

With the basics in place, the intention is to introduce a new, exciting benefit every year. Last year it was the iPad, but this year she’s surpassing even this in terms of popularity, thanks to the introduction of car salary sacrifice, through Tusker, also on the flexible benefits platform.

“We were hopeful that 1% might buy a car in the first year of the scheme,” she says, “but we achieved this within its first week!” By late July the scheme had “already hit a 3% response”, she says proudly.

A problem now being faced is how the HR team will beat this next year, but they are already thinking ahead – potentially offering the option for staff to buy and sell their holiday entitlement.

“This will take some time to iron out,” she says, “because being a ports industry, we need to have certain levels of service and safety, but once we do the homework, the aim will be to offer staff the chance to buy and sell five days’ worth of holiday each year.”

New benefits will be added as the business sees fit, and on the basis of whether offering it pays for itself (such as what car salary sacrifice has already done).

“We run surveys, and listen to what staff tell us,” says Willis. “One member even asked if we could offer golf club membership. That’s probably not on the cards… In the future, we’ll probably start looking at low cost/high impact stuff. We appreciate you don’t always need to go big. Thankyou schemes and simple recognition can go a long way too, so this is in our plans, too.”