Internet bank First Direct has pioneered social media in banking. John Collingridge meets chief executive Mark Mullen.
INVITING unedited comments about your bank in an era of very public hostility towards banking might sound like asking for trouble.
But First Direct chief executive Mark Mullen believes it’s just one of the reasons customers are rather fond of the Leeds-based internet and phone bank.
A trawl through the bank’s Talking Point comments website reveals a broad spectrum of views, ranging from complaints about “mediocre” service, to praise for being “miles ahead of the competition”, and even a marriage proposal from a customer.
“It’s a way of having a conversation,” says Mullen. “We’ve got some of the most loyal customers in the banking sector. They are limpet-like in their loyalty.”
First Direct’s bulging trophy cabinet includes best financial services provider at the Which? 2011 awards, the Moneywise 2011 award for best call centre customer service and best bank in the 2011 JD Power customer satisfaction survey.
Mullen, who took over running the HSBC-owned bank in September, placed social media at its heart during an initial spell as marketing director.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are littered with the bank’s distinctive black and white livery.
Its First Direct Lab allows customers to comment and dissect innovations it is planning, such as a recent overhaul of its website.
Its Little Black Book website doesn’t even explicitly market banking services, but allows customers to share experiences about favourite cafes, shops and days out.
Mullen, clad in a sharp suit and black-rimmed glasses, believes his marketing background makes him “much closer to the customer perspective”.
“Marketing is in the front line of business,” he says. “It’s increasingly a two-way conversation. They tell us as much as we tell them. I spend as much time talking to customers or reading customer emails as I can.”
The affable Irishman returned from Dubai last year, where he had been running HSBC’s marketing in the Middle East for two and a half years, spreading the reach of the bank’s Sharia-compliant Amanah banking services. He and his family returned to North Yorkshire, where they had kept a house, uprooting his twins in the middle of their GCSEs.
“I had no plan on coming back. In the midst of winter I sometimes think ‘Am I mad?’
“But it’s not like buses, they don’t come along in threes. If it comes, you get on.
“Who would not want to be chief executive of First Direct?”
Mullen returned to a country where bankers appear to have overtaken journalists and estate agents as the most hated profession.
“I’ve been in the Middle East and missed all of that,” he jokes.
But he shifts awkwardly in his seat as he recalls explaining his job to other parents at the side of a school rugby pitch, or when the conversation turns to banking at dinner parties. Even so, Mullen is not after sympathy.
“I have a very privileged job in that I’m CEO of First Direct – if you’re sitting on top of a brand like ours that does help.
“It maybe gives you a different position in the conversation around the dinner table.”
And, as Mullen is at pains to point out, HSBC did not need a taxpayer bailout. “We do our job in the best way we can, and focus on serving the customer in the best way we can,” he says.
“I think we need to communicate more effectively the value that banking creates in any society.
“It’s essential to have a healthy banking sector. It’s essential for growth, and essential for stability and I genuinely believe that I work in an industry that adds value to society because it allows people to build value.”
But for a man with some modern ideas about banking, Mullen sticks firmly to the script on the controversial subject of bonuses.
“I genuinely believe that I’m paid more than adequately for the job that I do. I don’t run my life on the premise that I get a bonus.
“I don’t believe that jobs should automatically come with a bonus. Bonuses are for performance that meets or exceeds expectation.”
Mullen did not always want to be a banker, but left university in Dublin in the midst of a deep recession, with a degree in history. He took a job as an analyst with an asset-based lender and “found that I quite liked it and discovered that I could count”.
Some 22 years later, and his entire career has been spent in finance – broadly as long as First Direct has existed.
The bank, founded in 1989, now has around 1.2m customers served by its two call centres in Stourton, Leeds, and Hamilton, Scotland. It employs 2,400 staff in Yorkshire, some 3,000 overall.
“We are not looking for bankers,” says Mullen. “We’re looking for people who have the right behaviour and right attitude.
“There’s a directness and openness to people that come to work at First Direct and that’s refreshing.”
Open 24/7 throughout the year, it promises customers’ calls are answered by “real people, not machines”.
It’s acknowledged as a “fantastic brand” by some big hitters in UK retail banking. But they’re also rather sceptical about the bank’s opaque finances, suggesting its reluctance to elaborate on profits may be because it does not make much money.
Mullen bridles at the suggestion, and says it’s simply that being a division of HSBC and not a separate legal entity, it cannot disclose numbers.
“First Direct is highly profitable. I cannot comment on wild speculation. I know how well First Direct has performed in the context of the banking sector and I believe HSBC is delighted to have it as business – and that’s not just because it’s a great brand.”
The few figures First Direct does provide suggest the bank is doing well, albeit struggling to grow customer numbers.
Mullen says since 2007, it trebled its mortgage book to £18bn, now comprising about a quarter of HSBC’s UK mortgage book. Loans three or more months impaired total just 0.3 per cent of its book.
As for his ambitions, Mullen says he has set no limit on how long he plans to stay at the bank, or how big it can be.
His comparison with technology giant Apple suggests he is aiming high.
“If you used an Apple computer a few years ago, either you were a creative or someone with a different attitude to techn- ology.
“If you’d said Apple would be not just the biggest computer company in the world but the biggest company, everybody would have thought you were mad.
“How big we can become is how effectively we can get that message across.”
Mark Mullen Factfile
Title: Chief executive, First Direct
Date of birth: February 6, 1968
Education: History at Trinity College, Dublin; MBA at Warwick
First job: Pricing analyst at Forward Trust Group
Favourite song: Cortez the Killer, Neil Young
Favourite film: The Deerhunter
Last book read: Transition by Iain Banks
Car driven: Mercedes
Holiday destination: Kerry, Ireland
Most proud of: My three kids – they constantly surprise me