Profile - Chris Cummings: Restoring credit to the public image of banking and finance

Chris Cummings is the man charged with proving the financial services industry is ‘socially useful’. John Collingridge met the chief executive of TheCityUK.

RESTORING faith in financial services is no mean feat, admits Chris Cummings.

The chief executive of TheCityUK is the man the industry has tasked with convincing the nation that not all bankers warrant bashing.

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“It’s a huge task,” says Cummings. “People feel that the industry let them down and we have become remote from their everyday lives.”

After protesters smashed windows at the home of former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin and riots forced the City to a standstill, banks and big financial and professional services companies formed a membership body they hoped would allow the sector’s positive contribution to shine through.

Cummings says the mission of TheCityUK, founded last year, is to “rehabilitate financial services and rebuild trust and confidence in the industry”.

Paid for by its members rather than the taxpayer, it counts the likes of Aviva, Lloyds Banking Group, RBS, Nomura, PwC and Morgan Stanley among its members. But, I ask, is the organisation merely a fig leaf to hide the banks’ pivotal role in bringing about the deepest recession for decades? Cummings argues not.

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“My challenge is to prove that we’re a socially useful part of the UK,” he says, in a pointed reference to the accusation by Adair Turner, chairman of the City watchdog, that some of banking is “socially useless”.

“(It’s to prove) that we’re a national asset and something that we should be proud of.”

Cummings believes the public are less concerned about bankers’ pay and bonuses than headlines suggest.

“It’s part of a challenge to say financial services is not the story any more. It’s ‘How do we create jobs across the country?’”

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“(The public) understand that talent has got to be paid for. The bonus issue comes way down the list. But the issue is ‘This is the industry that let us down’.

“We’ve got to be proving up and down the country and on every high street that we’re creating jobs.”

According to statistics from another industry promotion organisation, Financial Leeds, Yorkshire and the Humber employs about 146,000 people in financial services and related professions, making up a total 7.6 per cent of its workforce but contributing a disproportionately large sum to the economy.

That makes it one of the biggest financial services concentrations in the UK behind the City of London.

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“A cluster builds up. It’s an agglomeration economy. You don’t just want one bank,” says Cummings. “You need the accountants, the lawyers, the professional services firms that follow. 

“It’s this effect that draws together high-value jobs.”

Cummings compares the growth of a financial services hub to a shopping area.

“You need your flagship brand, you need your John Lewis. It means you get Costa Coffee and all the other brands around it because you know there’s going to be footfall.”

Cummings, born in Wakefield, visits Yorkshire to promote TheCityUK and financial services, as well as hear from the industry about its concerns around tax, skills and red tape. He is in regular contact with Howard Kew, chief executive of Financial Leeds.

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“The challenge for TheCityUK is to demonstrate we can promote the best of UK financial services around the world. That doesn’t just mean London.

“Although the City is an attractive place to work, for quality of life reasons and lower living costs you need to look around the UK.

“Not only Leeds but the Yorkshire region is noticeable for having a very good pool of graduates.

“Because of the long history of financial services there’s a pool of ready-made talent for anybody looking to invest in Yorkshire.”

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In fact, he says, more than two thirds of the industry’s 900,000-plus employees work outside London.

There are, he adds, huge benefits to making the region and the UK attractive to highly-skilled foreign workers, who are “internationally mobile and in the foothills of their careers”.

“(These are) people in their 20s and early 30s today who in 20 years’ time will be running the organisation and making hundreds of millions of dollars of investment decisions,” he argues.

“If there’s a choice in investing in somewhere you’ve lived and worked you will invest in the place you feel good about.”

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Cummings also finds time to return to Yorkshire with his family. They own a holiday home near Helmsley, North Yorkshire, which they visit as often as possible.

“I have a huge affinity with Yorkshire,” he says. “Everybody has been talking about globalisation for the past 15 years. People now feel increasingly strongly about their regional roots.”

The son of a truck driver, Cummings attended Newcastle University where he studied philosophy. It was a decent grounding, he says, because it taught him to think. “It teaches you to challenge basic assumptions.”

But getting his first job in financial services also equipped him with a whole set of new skills which university had hardly prepared him for.

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“I came out of the comprehensive school system. By the time I was 21 I had never even seen a spreadsheet.

“I joined financial services and it’s like joining a university. Financial services invests so much in its staff – they can even teach numeracy to a philosophy graduate.”

Leaving university, he spent five years in consultancy, before it was “time to get a proper job”.

His 20 years in the industry includes senior positions in business development, strategy and marketing at the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries, Sun Life of Canada and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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From 2005 to 2010 he was director general of the Association of Independent Financial Advisers (AIFA), a role he held until joining the newly-created TheCityUK last summer.

All of this has equipped him with a rounded knowledge and understanding of financial services, he says, which makes him the perfect advocate to champion the sector.

“I understand the issues in banking; I understand the life and general insurance community; I understand Solvency II and Basel; I’m deeply familiar with the regulatory structure and implications from increasing European regulation.”

Cummings, who was jetting off to Brazil after our interview to promote opportunities for UK firms there, says this complex and diverse brief keeps him rather busy.

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He travels abroad at least a couple of time a month, with recent destinations including Moscow, Turkey, Belfast and Sheffield.

“My wife would say I’m a complete workaholic,” he admits.

Cummings, who commutes to his office in the City from Cambridge, also runs most mornings before work.

He gives a wry smile when I ask if he had anything to do with choosing the organisation’s rather uninspiring name.

“It was decided before my time. I feel that we have a name that works well in some markets.

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“I don’t think there’s ever a perfect name but we have a very good name and it’s got the right connotations of financial services and national appeal.”

Cummings insists TheCityUK is a permanent fixture, and will still exist long after the banking crisis and recession have faded.

“Running it as a project would send out the wrong message.

“The commitment to make this organisation permanent was a clear indication that this industry recognises it had drifted too far away from its customer base.

“I couldn’t be doing a better job in the industry at this time. It’s a role that if done well will bring a huge benefit to the sector. I feel very lucky.”

Chris Cummings – Factfile

Title: Chief Executive, TheCityUK

Date of birth: November 12, 1967

First job: Financial services consultant

Favourite film: The Usual Suspects

Favourite song: Anything by Robbie Williams

Favourite holiday: Helmsley, North Yorkshire

Car driven: Audi A5

Most proud of: My three kids.