Me? A Bank CEO?: First Direct’s boss on his unusual route to the top
CEO of First Direct Chris Pitt speaks with City A.M.’s Editor Andy Silvester about his unusual route to the top of the bank and setting his sights on even loftier ambitions for Britain’s young people
First Direct boss Chris Pitt and I are walking down towards City A.M.’s offices near Monument. It’s a walk down Lower Thames Street – not the most aesthetically pleasing part of the Square Mile – but for Pitt it’s a trip down memory lane.
“I had my first job on this street? I think there used to a Davy’s wine bar down there.”
Pitt, and the City, has moved on from liquid lunches. Pitt now runs First Direct, the ‘branchless bank’ that now sits within HSBC, with a customer base of 1.5m and plans to grow that significantly.
Pitt is an unusual bank CEO. Born in Upton Park and raised in Hornchurch, his first City job was effectively as a messenger.
“The idea I’d be a bank CEO was slightly mad. When I applied for this job it was slightly mad.”
First in many ways
Perhaps, though, ‘slightly mad’ is a good fit for First Direct. The bank has always done things differently – we’re talking on the day that brand has launched its new advertising campaign featuring a skunk, because it offers a ‘whiff of hope’ – and it proved its credentials again in the back half of last year.
The Leeds-headquartered First Direct was one of the few providers not to pull mortgage provision immediately when the mini-budget gave the British public a swift lesson in the power of bond markets.
“We rallied round but we wanted to make sure we never went off sale,” he tells me. “The world righted itself pretty quickly but we wanted to make sure we stood up for people.
“When I heard there were banks coming out the market, I was thinking ‘why would you do that?’ You’re a bank – you’ve got to service your customers. I found it quite strange, just observing it.”
He demurs when I suggest it’s a badge of honour. “The mortgage guys are rightly very proud of it but it’s not in the top ten of things I think about to talk about.”
What Pitt wants to talk about is what First Direct have been talking about for a while: customer service.
As a branchless bank, telephone service has been in First Direct’s DNA for decades. In 2021, those standards wobbled slightly, with criticism that phones were being answered too slowly. Admittedly, much of this was a relative judgement, with one headline in The Times reading ‘they used to answer in two rings” – a high standard.
But Pitt has driven those standards back up, and First Direct is once again Britain’s ‘number one customer service brand.’
“It gives me pride that we’ve got those numbers back up,” he says.
“I was talking to Kevin Newman (First Direct’s launch boss) and he said that when you’re a bank without branches, your customer service has to be off the scale. So that runs through the DNA of the business, regardless of who is CEO.”
The challenge for all customer service brands is how to put that at the heart of a digital offering. Pitt has made no secret of wanting to attract a younger audience and he’s as aware as anyone that the new audience he wants to attract are more tap-tap than ring-ring.
“My boys are in their mid-twenties and they’d rather walk over hot coals than pick up the phone,” Pitt chuckles, but he says even younger consumers value the knowledge that somebody is there if it really matters.
“My boys are in their mid-twenties and they’d rather walk over hot coals than pick up the phone”
It’s the “million dollar question,” though, as to how you embed customer service in an app and digital banking – new telephone staff go through an ‘academy’ on induction, embedding Pitt and First Direct’s values, but those younger users may never pick up the phone.
First Direct have streamlined their account opening process, a move that Pitt acknowledges was informed by fintech challengers. But Pitt is confident that the customer service secret sauce will pull in even phone-averse consumers.
“We want to grow substantively but not on the back of the service diminishing or our people having to work every hour God sends.”
Next generation concerns
Pitt – perhaps because he has taken his own unusual path to the top of a bank – is thoughtful on FD’s, and indeed the industry’s, roles and responsibilities. We have talked about housing costs; Pitt’s son is paying a typically absurd amount to rent a studio flat in Brixton.
“It’s the unfairness. Nobody in their right mind is going to say they believe in unfairness, but unfairness really does wind me up,” the likeable Pitt says, with a flash of frustration if not anger.
“I bought a house at 23, my boy’s 26, and he’s not going to be able to buy a house in Brixton. It’s just not right if that’s how society operates. We can’t disenfranchise people,” Pitt says. First Direct continues to offer generous mortgage products to people further down the income or age bracket – and one of the things he wants to do this year is “show more tangibly how we can help.”
“I think it’s incumbent upon people in my position to create the franchise for everybody – we want to do it for young people, for people going through the menopause,” – (Pitt has led from the front in the campaign to recognise the toll it can take on women in the workplace).
“We try and do it everyday” he says, and then with a smile, but we try not to think “we’re turning water into wine.”
What are you reading?
Mrs Benson’s Beetle. My wife read it and recommended it.
What are you watching?
Happy Valley. It’s off the scale!
Holmfirth (in Yorkshire). It’s the Last of the Summer Wine village. Still getting used to the fresh air.