Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Cynergy Bank CFO on meeting challenges in financial services

When she joined the Bank of Cyprus UK in 2016 as its finance chief, Francesca Hampton, saw an opportunity to build on a career she had developed in some of the UK’s best-known financial services brands.

“I joined the bank because it had ambition, our CEO, Nick Fahy outlined a strategy to differentiate the bank from others, and focus on medium sized businesses, property entrepreneurs and family firms.  It wanted to grow, and the Bank of Cyprus had made a conscious decision to invest in the UK, and that was very appealing or me,” says the veteran of banks including RBS and Co-operative Bank.

But within a year of joining the business-focused bank started in 1955 which has a £2bn loan book, she says it quickly became clear that the bank’s Cypriot parent  “had a different agenda and it became clear the UK wasn’t necessarily where the money was going to be injected.”

An opportunity came about when a consortium offered to buy the bank for £103m in 2018, sending it on a new path and under the brand Cynergy it has been revitalised, says Hampton. Referring to the owners, two of whom sit on the bank’s board, she says: “They trust the management team to run the bank, and they respect that boundary,”

The takeover last year went smoothly, says Hampton. “We planned it really well in advance. We saw what the impact might be on customers and staff, and suppliers- very much from a relationship angle as it’s a relationship bank. We thought if we were in their shoes, what would they need to know,” she says.

Another key issue was understanding the impact of changing the bank’s name: “The senior team undertook scenario planning on this. We have a very loyal base and only lost one key deposit in the entire journey,” she adds.

The bank is now pursuing a customer strategy across three core channels, a property business, which historically has been its core focus, business banking and a private bank. “We believe that our differentiation will be that we focus on the owner of the business, not just the business itself. We’re working with fintechs to ensure we offer our service in a digital way, and holding our customer relationships at the forefront of our minds,” says Hampton.

When it comes to Cynergy’s finance function, Hampton says she tries to make sure that her team are fully aware of what is happening at the highest level, vitally important given the change of ownership. “If you don’t fill in the gaps for people, they tend to fill them in themselves. I’ve found that time and time again, being honest, with your teams, is vital,” she says.

In at the deep end

Hampton’s desire to be open with colleagues stems from her experiences in some of the most high-profile financial services groups in the UK. On a business studies course at University of Brighton, she was sponsored by accountancy firm HLB (now HLB Kidsons) to study for ICAEW chartered accountancy.

A career journey taking risks, “something that sometimes doesn’t sit well with females” she says, took her to early finance roles, including treasury accounting at First Choice Holidays, now part of the Tui group, before taking on senior positions, including finance director at Lombard.

At Lombard, an asset finance provider owned by Natwest, ambitions were encouraged by mentor Chris Sullivan who went on become deputy CEO of RBS. When she was very early in her career. Hampton challenged him to bring more women on the Lombard executive committee. “I got to know him, and he said I’ll sponsor you,” she reveals.

Working on the finance team attached to Lombard’s busy acquisition programme, Hampton jumped at the chance to become finance controller and then finance director of the business, after colleagues convinced her she was right for each role. “They said you’re not thinking about this the way a man would think about it, go for it,” she says.

Hampton then became finance director of the invoice finance arm of RBS, before taking up a corporate business group role across the bank, always sticking to the mantra: “Build your relationships and then understand the customer journey.” From there she became CFO of transaction services, CFO of global transaction services and then head of finance and transformation, international banking.

Over this period RBS was plunged into the world’s greatest single bank collapse as its bloated balance sheet was exposed by the global financial crisis. But she has high praise for colleagues maintaining business continuity through challenging times, including then CEO Stephen Hester who was tasked with rebuilding the bank.

“We were seen in the news as being worse than estate agents as it was being discussed around us by friends and peers all the time. There was a lot of pressure in the bank, yet there was collaboration, resilience and a real sense of community between us.

“Bearing in mind a lot of people including myself and a lot of people who worked for and with me, had personal wealth destroyed, because of the shares they held in RBS, they carried on giving their heart to the bank,” she says.

Hampton has a sense that her personal resilience was boosted by having come through the traumatic period at RBS. She says it also honed her skills as a finance sector CFO. “It’s important to be able to tell the story, not just to the external market but also to the regulators,” she stresses.

“I often see the female CFO as being able to adapt to this changing requirement. One minute you have to be very strong on relationships, the next minute you might be in the analytical position, the next minute you might be talking to digital lenders, and be very agile and nimble in your thinking. As you are juggling many balls at the same time, I think that plays to some of the things women do well,” adds Hampton.

Challenging times

Keen to work in a financial sector challenger, Hampton was hired as finance director of Metro Bank, a fast-growing disruptor in the space, that had harnessed many aspects of the retail sector. “I quickly learned how you radically execute, you deliver to the customer. We all had to look at customer scores and understand customer complaints, quite a rarity in a bank at that time.”

Hampton didn’t stay too long at Metro Bank, deciding it wasn’t for her. She  goes on to voice approval for possible moves to enhance greater auditor scrutiny of financial firms. “With the amount of data that goes in from all of the banks to the regulator, I sometimes wonder how they are able to pull out all of the information for the risks they want to look at,” “Fintechs don’t always understand what it’s like to be a regulated bank, and the requirements we have are very different, and some of them can’t live up to them,” she says.

A willingness to plunge herself into complicated situations, saw Hampton become interim finance director of Co-operative Bank, that had been thrust into commercial and reputational challenges. “I got a call from the CFO who wanted some help and I felt able to contribute as I could work in that pressure and atmosphere. I put some of that down to what I’d been through at RBS. I think some people thrive on that sort of pressure and staying resilient is important,” she says.

When the role at Bank of Cyprus UK came up, a familiar figure from RBS was the CEO of the parent group, John Hourican. He had been CEO of markets and international banking at RBS, and had taken the top job at Bank of Cyprus after leaving the UK bank in 2013. “He called me, and said are you going to join? That was the first time we’d spoken at the bank as he wasn’t part of the process. I had a good relationship with John and I trusted him, and that, added to how impressive Nick Fahy, CEO of Cynergy, was. So I knew it was the right place to go to. Trusting your boss and peers is such a vital ingredient in joining a team and I would not stay where I did not trust the team.”

Hampton says Cynergy Bank has strong ambitions to grow the loan book from it currents size of £2bn. “We believe that our differentiation will be that we will focus on the owner of the business, not just the business itself- what the business owner wants. We all know everyone wants speed and access to finance, but actually because of the fast lives people lead, we’re talking to our customers about what is important,” she says.

As well as operating a flexible approach to customer expectations, Cynergy Bank looks to provide accommodating working arrangements for staff. “People have blended lives, and I’m really lucky I have a CEO, in Nick Fahy, who really respects the fact I would not be a happy CFO if I wasn’t at home with my family,” she reveals.

Hampton, who lives just outside Brighton, says: “I work two days a week from home, and commute to and from work two hours each way, so I couldn’t possibly do my job if I was in London every day. I run a really flexible working environment for my finance team, I get to know what they need- some need money, some need a title, some need to be with their family working from home and I try and meet their needs- which you can do in a small bank,” she adds.

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