Russell Martin, human resources director at the UK’s largest insurance firm Norwich Union (NU), part of Aviva, doesn’t much like the fact that his industry is renowned for grey, humourless people bent over columns of figures.
Nor does he appreciate being reminded that in the UK at least, the persistent lack of trust in financial services is proving hard to shift, particularly among influential insurance-wary bloggers and their readers. He, in response, says that in the fast-growing Indian market, where cynicism is not a problem, the risk industry is treated with great respect.
But if some parts of the world complain that insurance firms are happier to take money in premiums than pay out in the event of a claim, Martin himself – who heads an HR team of 800 and confidently ranks himself as one of the top 50 stars in the Aviva Global Services firmament – is a man with a mission.
On a mission
His face lights up when he talks about his former incarnations – as HR controller at Osprey Communications and his roles in HR and outsourcing at rival insurance group Prudential and retailer Primark – and it soon becomes clear that this Belfast-born son of a trained harpist and a tax inspector is passionate about the arts scene. He is also comfortable in his skin – Martin agreed to sponsor Aviva Pride, the company’s lesbian/gay/transgender network, and believes that being ‘out’ has done nothing to damage his career.
Martin also feels very strongly about what he calls the “societal responsibility” that insurance companies must shoulder in protecting those who turn to them in a crisis, and he ranks the quest for “fairness” in all things as his prime motivator.
“My chief executive at the Prudential put it in a nutshell for me when he said that what we do is help old people eat,” he explains. “We take their money when they are working and we convert that into an income in retirement that allows them to stay in their houses, go on holiday and tend their garden and, ultimately, allows them to eat and to clothe themselves.
“Although it is easy to characterise insurance as a dry and dusty, numbers-related thing, you could actually flip it around and say it is a fundamental service centred on people and peace of mind at emotionally charged points in their lives.”
Ethics run high
Our interview is primarily to discuss Martin’s decade of experience in offshoring, first at Primark (now part of Thomson Financial), then at the Pru and now at NU, which aims to build a sound profile in India. The complex issues for HR are in managing not only 36,000 UK staff, but another 7,000 who are based in Bangalore.
“We have been fairly public about repatriating our ‘first notification of loss’ work because we think it is easier for people in a highly stressful situation to talk to someone who can relate directly to them,” he says.
“But at the same time we are constantly migrating other things offshore, including higher value tasks such as analytics and data mining, simply because the access to mathematical skills in India is so huge.”
When it comes to treating Indian workers with respect, Martin believes that after five years on the sub-continent, NU is ahead of the game.
“Our approach is highly ethical,” he says. “Unlike some companies, we don’t expect people to change or Westernise their names, nor do we ask them to lie about where they are based or read from scripts.
“In fact, in all the trips I have taken to India [he goes every eight weeks or so] I have never encountered anyone reading directly from a script, apart from the legislative stuff.”
Martin says Aviva involves employees’ families as much as possible. “When people join up, we bring in the parents so they have some appreciation of what it is we do, how we operate, the quality of the working environment and the nature of the work their sons and daughters are involved in.”
At a time when other financial services companies are earning plaudits for their repatriation of call centre operations, Martin’s own advocacy of the Indian way is uncompromising.
“It’s too easy to look at India as nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise, but the significant savings involved can also allow you to give your customers a better service, particularly if you constantly move the various processes on or offshore,” he says.
“I wouldn’t pretend there aren’t difficulties, or that we get it right all the time, but I do believe that something as basic as the time difference in India can be used to turn things round far more quickly for our customers, and it’s that sort of flexibility that keeps us committed to staying offshore.”
While the cost savings have allowed Norwich Union to restrict its use of what Martin calls the “irritant” of interactive voice response software, the bugbear of many a financial services customer, NU continues to monitor customer satisfaction on a daily basis and is acutely aware of the criticisms levelled at offshoring.
“Both here and in India, there are some call centres that are not at the level we would like them to be, but it has not been our experience that we have lost significant amounts of business because our call centres or back-office operations are in India,” he says.
While high staff turnover remains a significant challenge in India – 20%-25% not being unusual – what Martin calls “the stickiness” of many NU employees is enhanced by a policy of direct, rather than third-party, employment. More than 1,600 of the people previously employed by NU’s Indian partners became Aviva employees in January, and many more will follow.
He also believes there is a case to be made for presenting a job with Aviva in the most attractive way. “We don’t market ourselves as a call centre operator, but as a global insurance company, and that makes a huge difference,” he says, adding that in the Indian labour market, high turnover is not a major problem.
Organisationally, Martin says he needs “two lenses” to look through.
“From an HR perspective, the UK’s trend towards flat organisations is alien to most Indians. Managing our Indian population involves understanding that job titles are seen as very important, as is the need to demonstrate progression through smallish steps.”
The company’s workforce in India is graduate only – typically first or second jobbers – and the average age is 21 to 25. In contrast, NU’s UK workforce is far more diverse in terms of age and educational background. But there are also cultural differences.
“In India, the offshoring organisations have only ever known expansion and the sense of success that comes with it, whereas in the UK we’ve had redundancy programmes and a tough, highly regulated environment to cope with,” says Martin.
A period of redundancy at NU has clearly left its mark on Martin – 4,000 job losses were announced last September, and it was his job to go on local TV around the country to justify them. Although he admits it was a “tough challenge”, he believes it was also the “right thing to do”.
The HR team itself has undergone significant structural change and job losses, but now has a new talent management programme and a far bigger budget for new technology and systems. “We made a compelling case for further investment in our department,” says Martin.
His goal is to become the group HR director of a large company – the position at Aviva is currently filled – but as Martin believes that it is the HR, not finance, director who is the logical right-hand person to the chief executive, the sector is less of an issue.
“What’s important to me is having a CEO who knows what they want and is at the centre of change. That’s what I thrive on.”
MARTIN ON HR
Having worked in HR for nearly 20 years, what’s the main appeal for Martin – is it the people side of the job?
“Not entirely,” he replies. “I have never subscribed to the belief that you have to be a fantastic people person to work in HR, and if people come to me and say ‘I really love working with people’, my general advice would be to go and be a line manager running a big department with thousands of staff, because that’s about people.
“What I like about HR is the intellectual challenge around aligning the organisation’s ambitions with the processes that exist around its people something that can involve taking very tough decisions and being very objective.”
Martin says he is passionate about fairness, but not necessarily about people.
“Fairness is about having an adult-to-adult relationship with staff, and is also about that fairness going in both directions. It’s not about treating everyone in the same way, but being transparent and straightforward about the value we place on different roles.”
Feb 2006-present HR director, Norwich Union
2001-2006 HR director, Prudential UK and Europe
1996-2001 Global HR director, Thomson Financial
1993-1996 Compensation and benefits director, National & Provincial
1988-1993 HR controller, Osprey Communications
1985-1988 NatWest, graduate trainee
Degree in Economics/Accountancy, University of Birmingham