Alan Ramsay FCSI (Hon) is deputy chairman of the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment (CISI). A chartered accountant by training, he is an expert in financial services regulation.
Roles Alan has held include senior advisor to PricewaterhouseCoopers; global head of compliance for HSBC Bank and senior positions at The Securities & Futures Authority, The London Stock Exchange and The Securities Association.
People and firms in financial services have experienced great change in recent years. How do you see the landscape evolving further in the coming years?
Whereever one looks in financial services there are powerful forces at work in reshaping our industry.
I would put the drivers of change under three headings:
1. Technology or fintech as it’s become known
2. Customer behaviour and expectation
Technology is, perhaps understandably reshaping the way our industry operates, and that shows no sign of stopping as innovation progresses at an increasingly rapid pace.
The impact of ‘fintech’ is particularly keenly felt in the area of customer experience. As clients and customers become adept at interacting digitally with brands and services in the rest of their working and personal lives – for example peoples’ daily use of Google, Amazon and so on – so they naturally expect the same customer experience from their financial services providers. Fintech is providing some of that disruption and bringing a more accessible and convenient set of experiences.
What effect will these shifts have on the experiences of customers and clients? And those working in the sector?
Take consumer and commercial lending: there are new models now. Businesses and institutions can borrow and lend among each other in a way they didn’t use to be able to. New credit models and new ways of using and crucially, analysing, data are all helping to create, overall, a much more customer-centric landscape.
The third driver focuses on regulation. The situation we are in is that the challenges and dilemmas being thrown up by changes in tech and customer experience are not confined to incumbent institutions, be they banks or non bank ‘pretenders’. And that means that the regulators are facing new challenges in managing this ‘disrupted’ landscape.
Historically the regulation model has been focused on working with a defined and known group of banking and services institutions. But now it needs to adapt and extend to take account of the new, non-traditional players.
Essentially, the scope of the regulatory remit is broadening and becoming more complex.
Let’s remember that everything we’re talking about is against the backdrop of a horrible ten years that has seen the erosion of trust in financial institutions. There has been some good work done by firms themselves, regulators and industry bodies, trying to rebuild trust, but that’s not an easy thing to do. And we’ve all seen how reputations built over a lifetime, both corporate and personal, can be lost in a matter of days.
So, what becomes more crucial than ever is adherence to a new set of values and behaviours that influence the sector, centred around integrity, professionalism and accountability. And this is about going beyond the application of a straightforward set of simple rules.
How often have you heard people interviewed in the media using ‘I’ve broken no rules’ as an excuse for behaviour or practices that are coming under regulatory scrutiny? Well that tends to ring very hollow. And it’s certainly not a response that is going to help in the business of restoring trust. All of which explains why we are now seeing a focus on these set of values that are beyond ‘rules’. Rather, it’s about a code of behaviour, if you like.
Personal responsibility, accountability and professionalism have all become incredibly important in our sector.
You can point to rules-based regulation, but I think there is increasingly this recognition that simply going down a road where parameters are defined by rules doesn’t seem to wash. We must move on from that – and I think we are doing so.
I see it very clearly in the work I do with the CISI. The organisation’s purpose and objectives, and the appetite of student members, really demonstrates our commitment as a professional body to values, standards, integrity and proper behaviour.
How can financial services make sure it is appealing to high calibre people looking to build careers?
If you are in an HR function in a bank or large advisory practice then, perhaps five or ten years ago, you would have found it very easy to attract the brightest and best talent.
High flying graduates took the view then that the financial services sector was the place to be to build careers.
But the agenda of the new generation coming through is not necessarily empathetic with the perception of trust (or lack of) that the industry has experienced.
We need to get across the messages about behaviour, accountability and professionalism if the sector is going to be successful again at recruiting the best people.
What advice would you give to people wanting to develop their career in the financial sector today?
I think anyone considering working in the sector should take a good look at the breadth of opportunity available. Financial services comprises an endless range of products and sectors to think about and there are further specialisms within those.
Developing a coherent view of what the sector looks like and how it all fits together means you’re more likely to develop that personal understanding of what interests you, where you’re likely to thrive and therefore how and where you might enjoy yourself.
For example, the profile of a successful actuary is likely to be very different from that of a forex trader. As a recruiter you are seeking very different qualities in people.
To what extent is this sector a global one?
Yes, it’s a cliché, but financial services is a global business. All of the trends and challenges we discuss – themes around changing regulation, customer experience and technology – are as relevant in London, Hong Kong, New York or Tokyo. There will always be local variations, and business that are predominantly domestically focused, but a lot of the big issues are the same. And if you’re thinking about working in the sector then there is very definitely an opportunity to think globally.
Could you tell me about your greatest 'lesson learned' in business?
I learned fairly early on that every business has people at its heart. It can be very demanding and there will be difficult decisions to be made, but you do yourself a disservice if you don’t always try to treat people with consideration and respect. It pays dividends over the long term.
Also, remember that life is short and it’s worth asking yourself occasionally: “Am I fundamentally and mostly enjoying what I’m doing.” If you’re not, then think carefully about whether you should be doing something else.
What would you have done career-wise, had you not followed this path?
My degree was in history and I have had a lifelong love of the subject, so academia was tempting for a time. And in my youth, I thought that being a travel writer might be fun, offering the chance to combine a great interest in different cultures and geographies with a love of words and language. I seriously doubt however whether I have the necessary creative flair!
I have a Private Pilot's Licence and love to fly at the weekend. At this stage in my career, however, I probably have to be realistic and recognise that my dream of taking a 747 transatlantic is looking a little beyond my grasp!
And, in fact, I can honestly say that being a chartered accountant has taken me along a fantastic path and I’ve had some tremendous experiences. So I certainly have no regrets.