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“we do the things traditional banks couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t” — tracy garrad, ceo, first direct

“we do the things traditional banks couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t” — tracy garrad, ceo, first direct

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Postcodes in Leeds run from 1 to 29, from the city centre to Ilkley, a town Leeds shares with Bradford; but there are also outlier numbers, in unusual places.

There are no signs to tell you but between Stourton and Hunslet, behind the renamed Punch Clock pub (the Clock is Crooked now) and the railway line, the steady LS10ness of the industrial estates and housing estates gives way to extravagance: LS98.

LS98 1FD, in fact; Radio One’s postcode used to end 1DJ and this is a similar wink. Out here on Wakefield Road, as if on an island, is the headquarters of first direct — lower case all over the place — 1FD, in the 98th district of Leeds.

It’s an enormous building, as befits its address; the car park it dominates is as wide as Briggate is long (we measured). Even so, to have its own postcode district seems a bit much, until you remember that this is a bank, and a very big one. There’s no actual money there — at least, we didn’t see any when we went — and as we wandered around with a security guard, carrying our equipment in for an interview with First Direct’s CEO, Tracy Garrad, we took in the expanses of call centre desks, the corridors of well appointed meeting rooms, the occasional life size model cows, the sound-defended meeting and break areas, the high ceilings and huge plate windows, and the atrium, where a poem painted three storeys high on the wall celebrates the origin story of First Direct, we quite forgot that it was a bank we were in.

That origin poem commemorates the first night of First Direct, when the phone lines were all plugged in for the first time and the new staff were waiting patiently for the first caller to call. Then the phone rang, and —

And the security guard was insisting again that we had to go to reception and get a security pass, so we had to leave off there. Unsure of the layout or protocol, we’d brought our stuff in through the service entrance, and with our secure friend’s watchful guidance had ventured further into the building without being signed in than he, eventually, liked. We had the feeling we were becoming regarded as a slight risk, and that a chill was descending on what we had thought was a chill situation. We wondered why we couldn’t all just be relaxed about things, and then we remembered: oh yeah. This is a bank. A massive one, occupying all of LS98. We submitted to being guarded back to reception and dutifully signed in where we were told.

••

To forget that First Direct is a bank is human, and is actually part of their mission statement.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves as being able, and almost having a mission, to do the things that traditional banks couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t,” Tracy Garrad tells us, when we sit down and start talking about First Direct’s position in the twin worlds of banks and technology. The point of First Direct, since its earliest days, is that dealing with it shouldn’t feel like dealing with a bank.

It’s worth going back to October 1989, when First Direct launched, and reminding ourselves just how revolutionary its launch was. Banks, although they’d experimented with friendly logos and marketing graphics, were high street institutions that didn’t want customer service to disguise their solemnity. The shuffling hush of the queue, the stamp stamp stamp of the cashbooks, the flutter of notes being counted, the intimidation of being shown through to the interior offices; these were all things that made a bank.

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

So those were the banks. And telephones. Well, telephones. Squat little things with wires plugged into the wall; you hooked a finger into holes in the dial on the front and pulled to the right, more tactile but sometimes as devasting as any Tinder swipe; the dial’s noisy journey back to its resting place to recieve the next incanted number more pregnant than a thousand buffering YouTube videos. In 1989 you could get them with push buttons, and handsets that rang with an untamed electronic chirrup instead of a briskly vibrating bell, but only footballers and pop stars had access to the possibilities that opened up when you left the house weighed down by a mobile phone wearing through the lining of your bag.

The idea behind First Direct was that people in the 1990s would be much more into phones than they were into banks. Got money troubles to sort out? Instead of queuing all through lunchtime in a stuffy, cramped branch, just call the bank up that night as if it was your mum, and hopefully hear fewer scolding remarks about the amount you’ve just blown on that new car-phone. In a world where banks opened late, closed early, and didn’t much want to talk to their customers, 24/7 telephone banking was a game changer.

First Direct weren’t the only bank you could call up, but what set them apart was their rejection of what other banks and building societies still saw as their core: the branch. The high street branch was where banks derived the all-important impression of security: if there was a building with a vault, with your money inside, then your money was safe; you could see that it was. First Direct eschewed branches and threw money into the abstract, where truthfully it belonged: your money was never really inside that vault.

Without branches, First Direct were a lean operation, not distracted by building maintenance; but it took a certain kind of customer to put its faith and finances in nothing more than a logo, set in starkly modern Helvetica Neue; a bold advertising campaign, and a phone number.

There were enough of those customers around. Tracy smiles when we chuck the word “punky” into the mix; there are probably few things less punk than a bank. But First Direct tapped into a cutting edge rebelliousness at the start of the nineties, appealing to customers who were used to calling mysterious numbers from service station payphones to find out how to get to a rave in a far-flung field.

These were also the customers ready and willing, when the internet came along, to expand with First Direct from the phone to the computer and then back to the phone again, now in their pocket, with a screen, less phone more mini-computer, more mini than a Walkman, and the main way now to communicate with your mates, your mum, and your bank. First Direct were the first to offer text message banking, and the first to have a transactional banking app, so you could take a phone out of your pocket, tap the screen, and send someone some money.

But you couldn’t walk into a First Direct branch on the high street because, well, why would you?

••

“A lot of that innovation happens in this building,” says Tracy. After our negotiations with security, we’re twenty minutes late getting started, and worried about wasting her time; in fact Tracy said she was grateful for the delay, as it gave her a chance to eat a sandwich and some fruit at her desk, in a corner of the open plan call centre’s floor. It’s late afternoon, but Tracy has a meeting waiting for her at 5.30pm, and gives the impression of only being halfway through her working day.

We talk in the CEO’s pod; although her desk is out in the open plan, she also has use of this pod, slightly bigger than the big meeting table inside, with glass at either end and ‘smart walls’ along the sides, as well as a retractable roof. It’s a meeting room and a respite from the bustle outside, and we go here to talk about everything going on out there.

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

“In this big aircraft hangar,” says Tracy, “We have the people that come up with ideas — the propositions teams are in this building. We have also a lot of the technology execution people in this building, and a lot of the testers. And actually we’ve got our own inbuilt feedback loop in terms of two thousandish operational staff who are customers themselves, and who are constantly listening to customers and their wants and needs. So we’ve got a brilliant ecosystem.”

That it’s all in LS98 is design, not accident, and has its source in that founding aim to be at the forefront, and be different.

“First Direct have had a lot of firsts along the way,” says Tracy, “And aligned to that was being one of the first banks to have its head office outside London. In 1989 that was perceived as the financial centre of the UK, so we were breaking the mould culturally.

“We were symbolically and totemically outside London to create distance. Midland Bank were the group parent company, and their head office was in Birmingham; basing here was deliberate, to put distance between the parent company and a completely different business model for a different kind of bank.

“There were a lot of considerations for location, and one was around friendliness and the perception of the accent of Yorkshire people. To this day that has served us well, and our customer feedback comments proactively on friendliness.”

There’s a proactive approach to technology, too. Early implementation of new tech to a customer base of early adopters isn’t only heritage for First Direct.

“Fintech,” repeats Tracy, when we drop in the on trend portmanteau that describes advances in financial technology. “The spectrum and scope of what fintech can mean is vast. For me it’s about partnering, about utilising and employing with agility a range of tools and solutions that can speed up your ability to meet customers’ wants and needs.

“In the north there’s a real connectivity. Local authorities are keen to propogate an agenda of innovation, and demonstrate there is more to the tech industry and betterment of business outside just London and the south-east. Also universities in the north are doing a huge amount to further an innovation agenda.

“The great news is there’s a proliferation of fintech providers, and more openness from businesses in general and financial services in particular to be open to using them, because the competitive landscape is more fierce in financial services than it has ever been. There are new regulations coming along, and the best way to meet some of those requirements, and in some cases the only way, will be to deploy fintech type solutions that are agile and adaptable for an increasingly competitive business model.”

Some of which is very CEO heavy when it’s written down like that, but in person Tracy is a remarkably clear speaker, and we were able to follow her into new worlds of agile fintech without losing too much understanding. What she’s saying is that financial companies need more and more technology to stay competitive, and there’s loads of good financial technology being made in the north of England. Which is handy for First Direct.

“We do have developers in far off places; we’re part of HSBC Group, present in nearly seventy countries, with a lot of tech development and innovation in India and Hong Kong. It truly is a global effort from a technology perspective in HSBC and we tap into that and leverage it where it makes sense.

“But in the north, there’s a huge array here. Actually there’s a depletion happening in London, because yes, you’ve got an awful lot of fintech providers there, but you’ve also got a lot of demand there as well, which is often tapping into the same pool of people. So the fact that we’re in the north, we’ve our head office in the north, with teams of people specifying what we need and commissioning that, and there are providers here and there’s probably slightly more supply than demand at the moment, gives us a great ability to tap into that and be a bigger fish than if we were in London, competing against a lot of other demand.”

The cutting edge, lately, has been around identity; First Direct implemented Touch ID for its mobile phone apps this year, “A desperate wish from some of our customers,” says Tracy. “Passwords and PINs are fiddly, so that’s solving a real pain point for customers from a convenience perspective.”

There’s been another step, though.

“Voice ID,” says Tracy, “Goes one step further. That has a convenience factor, but actually has a security factor as well.”

Now, when you phone First Direct, they can decide if you are who you say you are by listening to your voice. “And the fact that we’re able to screen voices that are coming across telephone lines against known fraudsters, and real-time alert for them, is a massive bonus from a customer perspective. It’s a real win-win.

“A handful of our customers are a bit sceptical, or nervous. But that changes the moment you start to talk about real benefits: not just convenience, but security.

“We’re the first retail bank in the UK to have voice biometrics as a primary method of verification, and that’s a great place for us to be: back in the pioneering space.”

••

Tracy is also in a pioneering space. First Direct are a curious combination of bank and tech company, two industries that for differing reasons are known for being very male dominated. Banks, because that’s just the way it has always been done, in the chambers and boardrooms that First Direct emphatically rejected; tech companies, because despite being at the forefront of innovation, they’ve failed to catch the pace of social change.

“It does come up as a talking point, still,” says Tracy, “That, first, I am chief exec of a bank, and secondly that I’m a woman. It’s still relatively unusual. The point, for me, at which it’s no longer a talking point, is when we’ll know as an industry that we’ve cracked it in terms of the diversity agenda.

“Personally I’ve never really noticed that I was a woman; I’ve just been focused on doing the job to the best of my ability and loving it, and I’ve acquired skills along the way that have equipped me to do it. I think the fact I’ve had a commercial background in a whole variety of sectors, and then ten years working in technology, mean for me it’s the combination of my skills and experience that matter more than the fact that I’m a woman.”

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Of course we got that answer in that CEO pod because we brought gender up as a talking point, conscious that it must be a boring and reductive subject for late 2016, aware that it’s not something we’d be asking a male CEO to talk about. That’s why what we asked first was whether Tracy was okay with us asking about it. It’s a catch-22, as we know by asking we’re going against our instincts and treating Tracy differently because of gender, but we also know that if Tracy has things to say on the subject, then our pages are a place we’d be happy to have her saying them, because there are still attitudes that need to be addressed directly before the presence of women at the top of financial and technology companies is no longer a talking point. So we decided to put exactly that situation to Tracy, decide together what, if anything, we should ask, and then listen to her answer.

“I do have a great platform upon which to try and role model, and inspire younger females to know that they can succeed in technology, but also that they can succeed in financial services as well,” says Tracy. “And to bust some of the myths out there.

“I’m happily married, twenty-five years this coming Friday, and have two children, aged 23 and 18, both of whom are pretty much on the rails. And I think that shows that if you go about it in the right way, you can have a successful career as a woman in traditionally male industry, and have a really happy, satisfying family life at the same time. So I hope I role model some of those things.”

Tracy’s role-modelling is well targeted. It’s not the fading generations at the tops of banks who need to hear about Tracy; they should already know, anyway. It’s actually young people, the supposedly progressive generations, who can be too easily lulled into thinking that those male bastions are an unopposed norm, kids for whom equality is something that only affects other people, because the idea of one day running one of the world’s most innovative banks is so far beyond their horizons that it barely touches their best imagined versions of their own lives.

There’s a video on the HSBC YouTube channel that you’ll find by searching for ‘Tracy Garrad’, that takes five minutes to tell the story of just how Tracy became CEO of First Direct, a story that has more inspirational power than her job title alone.

“It would be easy to form an assumption,” says Tracy in the video, “That somebody like me, in the role that I now have, has followed a very traditional path of going to a great school, going to a great university, coming out with a fantastic degree, embarking on an executive management programme. And actually nothing could be further from the truth.”

The truth is that by the time she was 17, family break-ups and the loss of her mother to cancer meant Tracy had been uprooted hundreds of miles from her native Blackpool, and was responsible for the wellbeing of her younger siblings. Eventually she took a job at a company called Dolphin Bathrooms, working for Stephanie Bell, “Who actually went on to change my life.”

“When Tracy was young,” says Stephanie, “You could see her living on a very fine line between going as she has, to the very top, or falling off. And I have experience of kids that have fallen off, and I really didn’t want that to happen.”

Stephanie and Dolphin gave Tracy financial support and time off to get a qualification in business and finance studies, that kept her on the right side of that fine line.

“Stephanie’s the person I’ve picked up the phone to and said, ‘You’ll never guess what’s happened!’” says Tracy. “And, ‘Can I really do it?’

“It was good fortune that I met Stephanie. But I don’t think we should be relying upon good fortune in society to make sure that youngsters have a chance.”

Tracy works with The Prince’s Trust to mentor young people now; and she’ll discuss her position with us in terms of being a role model, because the message is important, and role models will probably never be out of fashion. But maybe one day they’ll be less of a necessity, and then we can ask different questions.

••

Banks, though; they’ll always be necessary, right? Oh yeah, bitcoin. Well, it might still be a bit soon for that. For all we know First Direct, having eschewed branches, will be the first bank to reject traditional currency and deal exclusively in mined data. But if that’s on Tracy’s roadmap, she isn’t saying; a crucial part of being and staying at the forefront of tech innovation is not telling anyone what you’ve thought up.

“We have done a massive amount in the last few months, furthering relationships and specific commissioning of particular technology aspects,” hints Tracy, her only concession. “But I’m not giving you any secrets.”

What Tracy will talk about, though, and relishes talking about, is the customer of the future, because that’s who — rather than Tracy, rather than a team of developers — will dictate what future directions First Direct will take.

“It comes right back to being really clear about who you’re there for and what you’re there to do,” says Tracy. “It comes from a genuine sense of knowing who we are, what we’re here to do, and holding ourselves true to that, despite often quite compelling commercial pressures that turn upon all sorts of businesses, but particularly on financial services.

“It comes from a recognition that customers don’t really want to think about banking and money. They just want to live their lives the way they want to live them — and for most of us, that involves money on a daily basis. I think the more you can make yourself, as a bank, almost invisible, because stuff just works and it’s intuitive and it’s simple to understand, and it’s proactive in helping you live life the way you want to live it, then what more could you ask for? That is after all what most customers will want. Less intrusion, and certainly less inconvenience, and more smooth, frictionless, it-just-works features. We’ve always held ourselves very true to that.

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

“There are clearly increasing requirements from customers for more self-serve features. But I think there are two or three thematic areas that we see as real opportunities, that will be a core part of what we develop and make available to customers.

“One is proactive management of money, and really being informed in a useful way; not information for information’s sake, but that maybe helps you save money or make better decisions. There is so much data available now that customers, I believe, are willing to allow firms to use as long as they have trust in the firm and feel there is a value-add for the customer.

“Also, helping customers to plan. There are massive tensions for people today. I have a 23 year old daughter, in her first job, in her first house, with aspirations for a lifestyle in ten years that, without proper planning, she’ll never meet, because actually she also really enjoys living her life today. That presents a real tension, and she’s not alone.

“There’s also something I think around helping to educate and inform and helping to plan. We already know that education institutions in this country can do very little by way of financial education for youngsters as they’re coming through school, so an awful lot of twenty-somethings need help.

“Those are just a couple of examples,” concludes Tracy. “But they all come back to being really useful.”

Be really useful, and First Direct will be able to write more poems on the walls, in those moments — increasingly frequent — when it doesn’t feel like being a bank. Those are the moments that set it apart in 1989, that set it in the 98th district of Leeds today, that set Tracy Garrad and First Direct not just apart, but ahead.

••

Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds — issue 39


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