Coutts’ new Chief Financial Officer reveals to Joyce Njeri the traits, decisions and career path that led to her joining the top ranks of financial professionals
CURIOSITY AUDACITY self assurance, intelligence and brilliance. These traits are easily discerned as I settle down for an interview with Jennifer Mathias.
Sitting across a large mahogany table in Coutts’ newly-opened premises at Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), of course I’m curious to know how a young woman rose through the ranks to head the Wealth division of one of the oldest and most prestigious banks in the UK, as Chief Financial Officer.
While admitting that the vast percentage of CFOs in the banking community are male, Jennifer says many women have also advanced a great deal in the business world, however they face more social and personal challenges than men, and this often affects their ability to move up the corporate ladder and gain the experience needed to become top managers.
“From my perspective, I have seen and worked with women who are equally technically brilliant [as men]. However, they often do not possess self assurance. Showing confidence in the boardroom, which, more often than not is male dominated, is essential in demonstrating that you have the right skill set for the job,” the executive says.
Centre of excellence
The Chartered Institute of Management Accountant (CIMA) qualified accountant joined Coutts earlier this year, where she was appointed to head the bank’s finance division, as Chief Financial Officer.
In her new role, she is responsible for building a centre of excellence for Coutts’ finance teams, and also works closely with colleagues in RBS Group Finance “to ensure consistency and alignment across the function.”
Jennifer talks proudly about being part of a team that was at the front line in implementing measures that would help bring the banking industry back to becoming reputable.
“I have been lucky and operated in two banks that have strong audit and accounting functions. I went through a period where we implemented the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a rule that was created to rebuild public trust, in the wake of corporate and accounting scandals,” she says.
Baseline of controls
The Sarbanes-Oxley federal legislation requires publicly traded businesses conform to enhanced standards in audit procedures and financial transactions and, in Jennifer’s opinion, “the act has become standard practice by making a fundamental improvement to the baseline controls across the industry.”
Hers has been a journey that has largely been in the banking industry.
“I started my banking career straight from university, where I joined the Lloyds TSB Finance graduate programme and qualified as an accountant under their sponsorship, thereafter moving into a range of finance and risk leadership roles at Lloyds Banking Group, and most recently as Finance Director of Corporate Banking,” she says.
Her previous positions include Head of Credit Risk and Compliance for the Lloyds TSB Commercial Banking division. She has also held a number of senior finance roles, working with board level teams including the Group (Lloyds TSB] CFO’s office, Commercial Banking and Wholesale Banking Finance Executive.
Career defining moments
Speaking about her key career defining moments in the journey to her current position, Jennifer recounts her experience vividly.
“There were two career defining moments for me. Shortly after qualifying from the Graduate programme, I was working in the SME banking business. The managing director of that unit was a very bold and inspiring leader, who implemented a brand new strategy that I thought, was really ahead of its time.”
“I had observed leaders in the finance community in action but this was my first exposure of truly inspiring and commercial leadership. I was three years into my career and his approach really motivated me. So, because of my interest in the strategy and my eagerness to be involved in everything, I in turn acquired a number of executive sponsors who coached, trained, inspired and really pushed me into the roles that normal career pursuits may not have.”
“This experience later provided me with an opportunity to work with the board team as Executive Assistant to the (Lloyds TSB) Group CFO,” the banker says.
“The other defining moment took place three years before the global financial downturn, I assumed a Head of Risk role, running a large part of the Risk division for the SME banking unit, supervising all the credit risk models, implementation of Basel II, impairments and all matters of Compliance and AML (Anti Money Laundering) management. Challenges were aplenty but I was well prepared to face them.”
“So those were the key defining moments that spurred me on and prepared me for my next role as Finance Director for the Corporate Division (including the integration of Lloyds TSB and HBOS) which ultimately prepared me for an external move in private banking and wealth management, at Coutts,” she adds.
Strategic repositioning phase
Jennifer took over the CFO role at Coutts when the banking industry was still in a challenging and strategic repositioning phase following the market downturn that began in 2008. She says the subsequent events after the difficult period shaped and redefined the responsibilities of the CFO a great deal.
“Post the financial crisis, there has been a shift in focus to the balance sheet, not just in banking but across the industry, where the CFO is looking at the financial books of the business to ensure there’s enough liquidity, funding and capital to guarantee smooth operations of the business.”
“In particular, there are a lot of new regulations that have been issued, some of them need to be implemented instantaneously and some of them gradually. Compliance it not optional so implementation of new regulations have to take place at the same time, ensuring that the business is functioning properly.,” Jennifer says.
“The other main challenge is leadership; leading your team and your business through the constant pipeline of change. There are technical changes that you need to educate across the business and the board teams, calling out the impact regulatory changes may have on business strategy, product design, customer strategies and financial planning objectives.”
“We have to interpret the new technical definitions, identify how material the compliance gap might be and then build consensus on the best and most practical approach to implementation, whilst still maintaining commercial viability and full compliance with internal risk appetite and the intention of the external regulation.”
Overall financial outlook
CFOs are ultimately evaluated by the business’ overall financial outlook, but Jennifer says pressure to achieve the objectives set by the board “is part of the daily CFO routine.”
“At Coutts we have been fortunate because the bank has held steady during the banking crisis, unlike what was witnessed in some other organisations,” she says.
“I am lucky that my division’s performance has been robust and not lost sight of the client in the turmoil. I’m a very forward-looking CFO and I take responsibility for informing our people about where the business is heading financially and how it intends to continue that momentum. I spend a lot of time discussing our forecasts with my teams and executive colleagues, preferring to focus on how we are going to deliver in the next six months rather than dwelling too long on what happened, for instance six months ago,” the banker adds.
CFOs are generally known to focus more on reducing operational expenditure and Jennifer supports this approach, saying that cost cutting is a critical measure in any business, however, “if you just focus on pure cost cutting today I do not think you would deliver the same results as you would say, ten years ago. You need to think of costs in terms of how they drive value for money, service levels and influence the overall client experience and meeting of their needs.”
“If you’re delivering a trusted and highly valued service to your clients, that in turn earns you the right to secure a deeper relationship with your customer, thereby securing long term advocacy and reduced volatility in revenues. For that reason, maximising the servicing of needs to a long term client base, as opposed to chasing a broad category of new clients every year, provides a stable base line from which to grow and invest in your business. So for me it’s the long term gain and a more strategic focus on costs.”
Relationship between CEO and CFO
Elucidating how the relationship between the CFO and the CEO has changed over the recent years, the banker says that she feels the bond is now a lot closer, “not only between the CFO and the CEO, but also with the Chief Risk Officer (CRO).”
“It comes back to the roles that are guiding the business through regulation and that requires the technical expertise of both the Risk and Finance officers, driving the business and the functions in tandem.
As a female CFO, finding the right balance and managing time to be successful in a demanding career can be tough, but Jennifer takes it all in her stride.
“My biggest challenge is finding the time to go to the gym,” she says with a chuckle, before swiftly interjecting… “The main challenge I face is finding quality time to listen to people and be able to advise them on the many various areas of our business.
Since arriving at Coutts, I have very quickly found that there’s often a queue outside my door. I love to hear and understand how the business solves its problems and where I can help. There is a constant pipeline of new challenges facing banking and I am keen to offer guidance and support, whether it’s technical, business performance related, or strategic and project related.”
“So Coutts has definitely provided a platform where my commercial skills seem to be valued more than just counting and taking care of the numbers and figures,” Jennifer says.
State of global economy
While giving an assessment of the current state of global economy, the executive expresses concern over the slow pace of recovery, particularly in the Eurozone.
“There’s still volatility in that market, however in London we are seeing a lot of clients and businesses moving from the Eurozone and into the UK particularly from Italy, France, Spain and Portugal.”
“Ironically, that is actually good for us because it presents an opportunity to capitalise on the non-domiciles.”
“We are also seeing more opportunities in our growth markets including the Middle East, Russia and Asia, and hence our commitment to the region here. That is what has prompted us to expand our operations and open the new office at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), combined with the broader strategy to target and serve the high net worth clients in this region.” the executive says.
And what does the high-flying banker consider key factors to becoming a successful CFO?
“Being commercial; being interested in the business; being a trusted advisor, having integrity, having a plan… and sticking to it, (unless there’s a good reason that warrants a detour from that plan); building and motivating a committed team that fully supports you, understands what you are trying to achieve and allows you to lead them towards what needs to be delivered.” she says.
Vital hiring tips
At Coutts, Jennifer is also responsible for building a centre of excellence for her division’s finance teams. While offering vital tips on the hiring, retention and development of top-notch finance talent, she emphasises that taking on tough assignments is key in advancing one’s career.
“I’ve built up a number of teams during the last ten years and my key ingredients in trying to attract and retain high quality staff include; sponsorship, demonstrating and investment in their development, coaching and giving them the opportunity to believe in themselves by allowing them to take on some testing deliverables.”
“When you hire raw talent, the individuals may not always be confident that they will be able to fulfill certain tasks. To encourage individuals to develop it is important to provide roles that allow them to challenge their ability, always raising the bar but ensuring they know they have your support.” she advises.
All work and no play would make Jennifer’s life dull, and for that reason the CFO likes to unwind with her favourite game of polo. She has been working hard towards acquiring an official handicap, and “for the better part of last season, I spent a good amount of time learning the hard way, with lots of bruises and tired muscles.”
“I’ve been playing polo for nearly two years, having learnt the ropes when I was staying on a polo farm in Argentina. I got hooked on to the sport, then after a while I went back to London where I joined a small polo club near Windsor to train and perfect my game,” she says.
And how does she manage to balance her work-life?
“Finding a balance is a constant challenge but I can honestly say I’m enjoying all the experiences my career is throwing at me right now,” she says.