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Staff of benefits specialists hail from variety of backgrounds

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Marty Webb, vice president of benefits for AT&T Inc. in Dallas, supervises a staff of around 80 people while also frequently interacting with an upper management that maintains a keen interest in benefits.

He has high praise for the diverse group of people with whom he works.

“We have a great group of employees — I'll just say that right upfront,” he said. They are “highly professional and highly educated employees, and they are people who care about our people.”

About two-thirds of his staff are in Dallas, mostly on the same floor as Mr. Webb, with about one-third in other locations, which reflects that “many of the individuals were employees of companies that were acquired,” he said.

“They have a variety of skill sets,” Mr. Webb said. I have people who are professionals in the health care industry, highly knowledgeable pensions and savings plan experts, actuaries, lawyers on the team and just a host of different types of professionals,” said Mr. Webb.

“And we have people who have grown up within the industry and have come from a variety of different places within AT&T. I'm an example of one of those,” Mr. Webb said.

Mr. Webb didn't start out in benefits, but he found it was a good fit nevertheless.

“I didn't grow up as a benefits employee. I grew up as a businessperson who brought skills to this part of the company, and some of the (other employees) did as well,” he said. “But we have other employees who came in as midcareer hires in highly specialized areas to do a number of things for us.”

Structurally, on the health and welfare side, there are personnel in benefits plan design who are “employees who are looking out into the future and trying to decide kind of where we're headed and what change needs to occur,” Mr. Webb said. The operations unit includes people “who keep the plan running and they have direct relationships with our vendors.”

There are parallel personnel in pensions and savings, Mr. Webb said. Other staff members are involved in making sure the plans are written correctly, while yet others work in communications and compliance. Separate groups deal with claims, appeals or litigation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Webb personally interacts with senior management on a daily or weekly basis, whether it be via a presentation, phone call or email.

“It's not uncommon for us to have a conversation, and I can tell you that Bill Blase, our senior executive (vice president), is very knowledgeable and interested in everything I do,' "" Mr. Webb said.

He also often has conversations with AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall L. Stephenson on major issues, “whether it be a change that's happening or we are implementing, or whether it's just to provide information” based on Mr. Webb's years of experience.

“But if there's a major change happening within AT&T, he'll want to be part of that decision, “ Mr. Webb said.

He said he feels his own financial background has contributed to his success as a benefits executive. “Some people might say "I'm an accountant' or "I'm a lawyer.' “

“In my case, I would say I'm just a businessperson, but my background has had a lot of financial functions in it, and it has had a lot of what I would just call process-oriented functions” in which he has held end-to-end responsibility for a process or function.

Mr. Webb encourages his staff to speak their minds.

“We expect our people to be very opinionated about what they know and what they believe. That sometimes results in creative tension within our group,” he said. But “that's where the best answers come from. I think that's why we've been successful around here.”

He also is not shy about sharing his opinions outside of the company and has played a prominent role in the health care industry.

One issue on which he has been particularly active is transparency, which has included garnering support from a group of more than 30 Fortune 1000 human resources executives in seeking the release of “true” claims costs from insurers rather than the average costs usually provided.

“The more that information that can be shared in a secure space, the more it will help people make the right cost and quality decisions,” Mr. Webb said.