Best benefit ever? Laura Watkins votes for the 401(k) plan

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Published: September 24,2007

Although she says she took an odd route to human resources, Laura Sorey Watkins loves working in the profession. The 44-year-old is vice president, human resources, at Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company where she began in January 1986 as a computer programmer.

“That technology background has helped me in HR,” she says. “I just kind of ended up in HR because I helped develop the 401(k) system. It was just getting started and I knew as much about it as anyone else.”

In 1989 she switched to the HR department and became administrator of the company’s 401(k) plan, a large plan with approximately 4,000 employees in it. It’s Watkins’ favorite part of what she does.

“I think it’s the greatest benefit Congress has rolled out,” she says. “I’ve seen employees go out in style when they retire. It’s a very good plan.”

Not content to rest on her accounting/data processing degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, Watkins earned the Certified Employee Benefits Specialist designation in 1991 through the International Foundation of Employee Benefits and the Wharton School.

“This is something I’m very proud of,” she says. “It was a series of 10 exams that covered every area of employee benefits. It helped me tremendously in learning benefits when I first started in that area. I do believe continuing education is extremely important.”

She also completed requirements for the Senior Professional in Human Resources designation in 2003 offered by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). Active in that professional organization, she currently serves as membership chairman of the Capital Human Resources Chapter.

Health insurance challenges

Watkins is based at Southern Farm Casualty’s headquarters in Ridgeland. In her work, she focuses on benefits and supervises human resources, payroll, the corporate communications department and the company receptionist. In addition to the 401(k) plan, she is responsible for a 2,000-employee retirement plan, a 3,000-employee flex plan and a 250-employee health benefits plan. She is pleased that the company, with employees in seven states, still has a pension plan.

“The biggest challenge is health insurance. It’s a balancing act, trying to have coverage that’s good and affordable, and it’s harder to balance it every year,” she says. “No decision we make is ideal. I would love to have a leveling off of medical costs, but it’s out of my control. It’s a scary thing that I know it’s a struggle for all companies.”

She’s observed changes in benefits such as the switch from the theme of the 1980s to educate employees on investment choices for the 401(k) plans. “Now everything is going to more automated plans,” she says. “There’s a total change in how it’s working. The focus changed to helping employees make choices they don’t want to make.”

Responsible for the company’s government filings, Watkins believes Congress assures her job security for years to come. “It gets tedious,” she said. “We refer to some of these acts as consultant acts because you have to hire a consultant to help you understand them.”

Away from the office…

Her sense of humor helps her cope with the demands of the job and extends to time at home where she likes to relax in the whirlpool tub with a fleet of rubber ducks. “You have to smile when you see rubber ducks,” she adds.

She and husband, James, an engineer with the Mississippi Department of Transportation, are water people and like to go boating on the Barnett Reservoir. They live in Gluckstadt and enjoy spending time with lots of family in Central Mississippi, including 14 nieces and nephews.

Also important to Watkins is her involvement as a volunteer instructor for several years in the Christian Women’s Job Corp. It’s a program sponsored by the Women’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention and is designed to give focused help to students in many areas.

Watkins grew up in Pearl, the youngest of Robert and Elane Sorey’s five children. It was an extended family with lots of aunts, uncles and cousins. Some of her aunts were teachers, so Watkins says everything she did at school was reported to her parents.

“It’s a great family — loving and supporting,” she says. “Education was important. The question was not ‘would we go to college’ but ‘where would we go’.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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