Interview with ex-CEO of Société Générale Newedge UK, Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson

We spoke to Richard in February 2017:

Hi Richard, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. You’ve had an impressive career to date, can you take us through your journey so far?

RW: I started as a graduate trainee at Lloyd’s Bank in 1988, then after a year I joined Societe Generale as a Swaps back office clerk and worked my way up until I was given the opportunity to be Head of Derivative Operations. After about 18 months I became the Head of Financial Management which I did until 1993 until I was 27. I then moved to New York where I became Head of Strategic Development for Finance over there and we went on a rapid growth from 600 people to about 3,500 in under 3 years. I ran Programme Management for the Americas for a couple of years, largely around global programmes and merger integration. In 1998 I became the Head of IT for the US, and in 2000 I became the Corporate CIO for Soc Gen Investment Bank based in Paris. I did that for a couple of years and then became the first global CIO for Fimat which subsequently became Newedge through merger with Calyon Financial. In 2009 I became the COO for Europe and then a year later became UK CEO. We were required to convert from being a bank into an Investment firm which we went live on November 1, 2011 to become the largest single regulated entity in the country. I remember the day because it was the same day that Man Financial went bust which made for an exciting time! I continued as CEO until 2014 and then stepped up to Chairman. Since then I have spent a lot of time advising. In 2015 I led the remodelling of the Target Operating Model for the Co-Op Bank and then took over as CAO there for a year. More recently I have spent a lot of time working on the housing and slum problem targeting Mumbai as a pilot.

To what do you owe to your success, especially what seems like very fast success from such a young age?

RW: It didn’t feel fast at the time… I changed role every 18 months or so. There was definitely some good fortune – being involved in areas where there was lots of change going on and working with people who believed in you. The only recipe that I found early on was simple hard work. First one in and last one out. Look after your people and try and stick to your principles. Nothing clever. ‘Keep your promises’ is what I tell everybody. If you keep your promises and look after your team, you’ll do ok… I was also driven for a long time by a fear of failure. I come from a very unglamorous background. Local state school in Scotland and so on. I thought I wasn’t really adequate which drove me to keep working harder.

Interesting point about hard work being the simplest recipe… They say nowadays that millennials don’t really know what hard work is because everything has been handed to them. Do you think that’s true?

RW: No. I think everyone’s full of stories. People like to put badges on things, things come and go... I don’t know how you can label an entire generation in any way at all. I’ve been more taken by the impact of religion and culture as a driver of people’s behaviour. If you try and put a finger on millennials, you’d probably say they’ve got access to more information than before. But people are people. They don’t work with you because you tell them to, they work with you because they want to. If you can set the bar somewhere where it’s a challenge for everyone, but can get them there, people will tend to step up and if they don’t then you find something else for them to do.

You went from being Head of IT to CEO of a bank which is unusual. Was this down to planning or opportunity?

RW: That’s more a measure of the quality of the leadership of the people I was working with. They would look at you for who you were rather than what badge you wore. The opportunity was there and I put my hand up. In life if you don’t step up or step in, things just pass you by. You have to grab opportunities. Sometimes they’re bad. In my life, I’ve made one or two whopping mistakes. For long term success, if you can’t be inspired by the people around you and you don’t share values then it probably won’t be much fun.  And if you’re not happy, it’s very hard to be successful.

What are the key issues facing large financial firms in 2017?

RW: I think that there are 3 things out there. One is that the majority of the large financial firms have a big cost problem. They’re being attacked by new tech players or increased regulation – the new world won’t work with their current tech structure so they’ll just struggle. Two is the digital world, the new generation of automation and machine learning is going to decimate some parts of the sector. It’s all about data in the next generation. Third is risk management. As you take people out of the process and go digital, volumes go up and everything happens faster, and you have to have your risk management absolutely nailed on.

That leads quite nicely into my next question about a topic we have covered in this issue of Perspectives. GDPR will bring new regulations on the use of customer data. Do you think this will help with the issues you stated above?

RW: It will help as it will make it a focal area but it will only be as good as the company is. You’ve got lots of institutions served by multiple suppliers who manage core functions for them so it’s not just how your organisation manages things it’s about how you can look through your providers too. In my professional life I have been hurt more by vendors making mistakes than by my own guys. I had an incident where a vendor left a laptop in the back of a taxi in the US. We didn’t know whether it had been used or not, but it was lost. There were fines and the vendor were liable but ultimately I was accountable and reputationally no one cares how it happened. You usually don’t get hurt for clever reasons. Most stuff that goes wrong is pretty basic. Talk Talk is a good example of the reputational impact. Once you’ve been turned over like that, you’re in trouble because people don’t trust you.

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt in business?

RW: Linked to what I said earlier about always keeping your promises, it’s trust. You need to always find out who you can trust to do business with. It takes a long time to understand people and see what they’re really made of. And you find out only when things get tough or when money is on the table.

Finally, what do you want to get out of the year to come? What are your ambitions?

RW: Now I have got over the fear of failure, which is not healthy, my aim is to have serious fun. I want to work with talented people and solve problems together and build something. Something that has a purpose.