Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top- CYBG CFO

Route to the top- CYBG CFO

Ian Smith, finance chief of the challenger bank, reveals a career journey that includes time in the entertainment industry in LA and senior roles in UK banks at the height of the financial crisis.

I was going to join the RAF after I learned to fly at the University of Aberdeen (I’m a Scot by heritage but I grew up in Kenya), where I studied economics with agricultural economics. I got my pilot’s licence and I always was drifting towards the RAF which is why I didn’t join the university ‘milkround’, but then realised I wasn’t good enough to be a pilot.

I wasn’t prepared to sit in the back of the aircraft which was what people who didn’t make the grade as pilots would do, as navigator or weapons officers. I ended up working for a small office furniture company in Slough, designing and installing office furniture, after graduating.

It was time to get a proper job, so I decided to become a chartered accountant and joined the Newcastle office of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells which became part of Coopers & Lybrand, undertaking audit and then a lot of corporate recovery work during the 1991-92 recession.

It certainly brought home harsh realities. The saddest thing I can remember from that time was a small company based just outside of Newcastle that made hats, scarfs and gloves for Debenhams. It shut on Christmas Eve, and I was in tears- it was just devastating.

I moved to Los Angeles to work in the film and TV world. I was posted on an international secondment programme to Coopers & Lybrand’s entertainment practice for two and a half years. My biggest audit client there was the biggest Spanish language programme which had 100m viewers it was run by Televisa, that was owned by the richest family in Mexico.

There was an interesting cultural difference. The best and the brightest in the UK would choose accountancy and the big firms as a career, in the US the best and the brightest went to become lawyers or joined other professions.

I got my first taste of financial services, when I joined Coopers & Lybrand in Edinburgh after returning to the UK, my first client was Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), before its takeover of Natwest. I moved to Deloitte working on determining how the electricity market in Scotland should be established. It enabled me to demonstrate that I could walk into unfamiliar, unchartered territory and again be successful.

Deloitte began developing its financial services business. I worked in the team advising RBS on its attempt to acquire Barclays which was rejected but when Bank of Scotland bid for Natwest, RBS joined the bidding and won. Around the time the acquisition completed, Deloitte was appointed auditor of RBS.

I spent seven years helping run the audit of RBS, through to 2007, a period in which RBS grew rapidly through acquisition, and I left as they were completing the acquisition of Dutch bank ABN Amro.

Members of the Natwest management team were aggressive and ambitious, attributes that can sometimes lead to dysfunctional or unhelpful behaviour, but I never encountered an issue of integrity, transparency or anything like that there. It was more about ambition trumping competence and capability and some poor choices on risk.

I then joined high street bank HBOS as deputy CFO. I joined an institution that knew it had some issues to deal with, and was determined to deal with them, for example strengthening group finance function, risk and the central function. I then joined Lloyds Banking Group as deputy CFO after Lloyds TSB bought out HBOS at the height of the financial crisis.

What sunk HBOS was Ireland. Not enough has been understood about that but the losses from Ireland that Lloyds incurred were greater than the losses from its corporate book.

The last quarter of 2008 was unprecedented in terms of the scale of the financial crisis and the measures that were taken to deal with it, so every single estimate of capital requirements and other things was wrong, because nobody knew quite how deeply and quickly things would. Stabilisation of the banking industry at the time was Gordon Brown’s finest hour

I went back to Deloitte to help build its M&A transactions business in financial services:  banking, insurance, asset management, which I did for four years and I really enjoyed. It felt a bit like coming home.

But I realised I wanted to get out of the commentary box and back onto the pitch. Eventually I joined CYBG when the group featuring the former Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks was set free by Australian owner NAB. You don’t often get the chance to float a business that often. I joined in November 2014 and we floated the bank in January 2016 after a period of me leading the work on the IPO and everything that came with that.

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