Barney Collins, Partner of Bateman Collins talks to Alex Marsh, Managing Director of Close Brothers Retail Finance about his vision for the business, leadership principles and people strategy.
BC. What is your vision for Close Brothers Retail Finance?
AM. As a business only formed 3 years ago to provide point of sale finance products to retailers and their customers, our vision is to be the leading provider of retail finance in the UK. But more important to us is our purpose which is to champion underserved specialist retailers the length and breadth of the UK, from start-ups and small businesses to leading brands – helping them to unlock growth by making their products more affordable.
It’s a great feeling for all the team to wake up each day knowing we are helping these retailers to thrive, rather than just survive – be that converting more browsers into buyers, boosting average spend and building customer loyalty. And the fact that our market leading proposition combined with our fast paced and forward-thinking team has translated into us becoming the fastest growing provider of retailer finance in the UK – helping over 700 retailers and serving over 150,000 customers with an NPS of +71 – is the icing on the cake!
BC. That is an exciting journey and a formidable achievement, given current competing market pressures. What do you see as the challenges ahead for Financial Services?
AM. Trust remains a big challenge in Financial Services – and the trust can be irreparably damaged by many factors – the transparency and value for money to consumers for the products or services they are receiving – or in the case of retailers in our market, trust that their finance provider will support them through thick and thin, be that differing economic cycles or keeping pace with changes in customer behaviours or technology.
BC. How are you tackling this challenge?
AM. In our case, we are seeking long standing partnerships with our retailers, earning their trust and loyalty through access to industry leading technology that is crucially underpinned by dedicated expertise in retailer relationship management, marketing and product / customers data analytics.
BC. Close Brothers has managed to continuously outperform the market across so many specialist businesses. How have the Group been able to achieve this?
AM. We’re very fortunate to be part of Close Brothers Group plc, a FTSE 250 merchant bank, which works with over 280,000 British businesses and provide finance to over 2million customers and A-rated by leading credit rating agencies. As a group we’re proud to support British business through good times, and when things have been a little uncertain.
A fundamental part of the group’s success has been a relentless focus on sticking to the core principles of our business model, differentiating ourselves across service, expertise and relationships. In order to deliver this we strike a very fine balance between agile business teams very much focused on understanding and best serving their niche markets, whist sharing bank and group-wide expertise in areas such as technology and regulatory / legal compliance. The partnership between our teams within Close Brothers to protect, improve and extend our business model is the cornerstone to our unblemished reputation and track record cultivated over nearly 140 years.
BC. How important is your people strategy in achieving the organisational goals?
As the Managing Director of Close Brothers Retail Finance my top priority is to build and retain the fast-paced and forward-looking team that will deliver our strategy and proposition as we rapidly scale up. This means a team that feel passionate about our business and how it contributes to the wider group.
Building an internal start-up has been a bigger cultural challenge than I had anticipated for our team, our group stakeholders and myself – a start-up requires a different mind-set and it’s been a learning curve for everyone involved. To support this we’ve invested significant time and effort in our people strategy within Close Brothers Retail Finance over the past year – we named this initiative #FastForwardThinking and it spans both internal activities across values, engagement and communication, and more recently also externally across our retailer relationships, proposition and marketing.
The impact of #FFT on our organisational goals has exceeded all expectations – in recognition of this, we were proudly presented with ‘Team of the Year’ at the Financial Services Experience Awards in July 2017 – but what struck me even more has been the change in culture in our business, where we’ve seen our team members from all functions rolling up their sleeves and giving up their evenings and weekends to go the extra mile to service our retailers, be that supporting new product launches or joining them at industry expos or specific retailer events – with the objective to help them harness the full benefit of our offering- today, not tomorrow – that is true #FFT.
BC. Many congratulations to you and your team, achieving the award ‘Team of the Year’. What is most important for you and the team when you are hiring a leader within Close Brothers?
At the end of the day as a leader within an organisation such as Close Brothers, you are simply a steward of the team, function or business that you are responsible for. The most important aspect when hiring a leader must be cultural fit, respecting the heritage and success of our business model so it is protected, but equally able to constructively challenge the status quo to drive improvement and extension of the organisation.
Drilling down a bit into this, as to what I mean by cultural fit – the top two qualities I look for in leaders are being inquisitive and also a good listener, to help drive collaboration – these skills help our leaders understand what works well and what could be improved – be that by spending time with one of our team members within Customer Services, out on the road with a customer or on retailer visit or discussions and debates within a board meeting. Being an active listener is definitely a skill I’ve worked particularly hard at building into my own approach as Managing Director for a business looking to scale up quickly.
A third quality I look in Close Brothers Retail Finance, are leaders who are able to create an environment where team members are engaged and comfortable to be themselves. In my personal experience I perform better when I do not have to play a part and am free to laugh and have fun.
BC. What makes someone successful within Close Brothers?
Having worked at Close Brothers for over 8 years, I’ve seen colleagues at all levels build successful careers within Close Brothers. The common theme are people who are able to move quickly between rolling their sleeves up to get involved in the tactical detail of a problem or task, and then taking a step back to see the bigger picture to assess the broader strategic context or opportunity.
We work hard to build these skills within Close Brothers by rotating team members between different functional areas or businesses to ensure they have this flexibility and agility of mind-set. During the past 8 years I’ve had the fortune to spend time in head office leadership roles in Projects, Finance and Strategy, and also highly operational business roles including COO for our market leading insurance financing business. This rapid rotation across such a breadth of disciplines and roles has equipped me well to progress to my current role as Managing Director of Close Brothers Retail Finance.
BC. What is your own leadership style?
AM. My leadership style has definitely changed over the past few years. At times I have been highly directive, particularly in areas where I have more experience or expertise, such as Projects or Finance. More recently with roles that have stretched me beyond my core knowledge – such as high volume operational activity when I was COO or understanding the nuances of the retail finance sector, where I am now the Managing Director- I’ve benefited from a more collaborative approach, building my understanding, priorities and plans from the members of our entire team who know these areas better.
As an extreme extrovert on the Myers Briggs indicator scale (along with a healthy dose of NTJ), I very much enjoy spending time with people, listening to their situation, bouncing around ideas and helping them develop to the best of their ability. As the Managing Director of the business acting as the bridge to our wider group, you can’t hide from the fact that there are a lot of meetings, but I’m at my happiest when out and about with our team, meeting retailers and spreading the word with anyone who will listen about our unique offering.
BC. Who or what are your inspirations?
I’ve always been inquisitive and loved learning, undoubtedly influenced by the fact my mum was a teacher for most of her working life. Having attended comprehensive schools in my home town of Brighton, I was incredible fortunate to study Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and unexpectedly earning a first-class master’s degree. I continued on that learning journey by gaining my chartered accountancy qualification with PwC, where I spent 6 incredible years in their London and Sydney offices.
So a key part of my motivation and confidence has always come from the pure joy of learning and developing, having been inspired by my parents and brothers, a number of teachers, colleagues and mentors along the way. The impact has been so great, that my main passion outside of work is encouraging the benefits of education and personal development for young people, acting as a Chair of Governors for a large comprehensive secondary school in Brighton, mentoring both individuals and teams, and volunteering for a number of charities that support education.
BC. What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
First off, the best piece of advice is to make sure it’s something you’re passionate about – if you’re not passionate about the problem you are trying to solve, how can you expect others to be?
Secondly, you need to invest time in designing and crafting your proposition and be really clear about what you are offering and to whom – understanding how it differs from your competitors and alternatives already in the marketplace is crucial.
And the final piece of the jigsaw is building a talented team who embrace the passion and enthusiasm for your offering, to maximise the chances of achieving your ambitions.
BC. Thank you, Alex. One final question for you. What books are you reading at the moment?
This past year I set a resolution to read a book every month – this doesn’t sound much but 12 books would probably be the total number of books I’ve read in the previous 5 years. I alternate monthly between a fiction and non-fiction book. Highlights of the past year have included ‘Shackleton’s Way’, a gift from our Managing Director at Close Brothers, Adrian Sainsbury, covering leadership lessons from this great Antartic explorer, and also the ‘The end of the world running club’ a post-apocalyptic thriller about a father running the length of Britain to reach his wife and children (I love long distance running outside of work but maybe not this far!).
I am currently reading ‘Thrive’ by Arianna Huffington which considers the impact of modern day desires for money and power, to the detriment of relationships, health and ultimately our careers. This book is full of practical tips and hints which I’ve enjoyed implementing including a recent digital detox whilst away with our young family on holiday. Next up is ‘The spy who came in from the cold’ by John le Carre – a cold war spy thriller regularly listed as one of the greatest crime novels of all time. I can’t wait!
BC. Alex, thank you very much for talking to us today and sharing a few experiences of your career journey to date. We wish you greatest success growing the Close Brothers Retail Finance business.