Each week we ask a City figure to take a trip down memory lane. Today Rich Wagner, CEO of challenger bank Cashplus, takes us through his career in the Square Mile.
What was your first job?
My first job after college was as a customer service advisor for Bank of America. It was one of the things that got me hooked on payment, cards and banking. I still think it’s one of the most important roles in any bank because it’s focused on helping customers. I learned so much from that role and it still influences me as a CEO today.
What was your first role in financial services?
I got lucky, in my first senior role after my MBA, to work for a very small bank in the USA called Providian, a non-branch, direct mail focused card issuer whose ethos was a ‘bank run by engineers’. A unique concept 30+ years ago: a branchless bank run by quantitative data and technology people focused on helping underserved banking segments with credit. My first job in the City didn’t come until 1999 setting up the same Providian Bank in the UK. Many years later, those foundations of digital tech and data now underpin many of the most successful UK fintech firms, including Cashplus Bank.
When did you know the City was the place for you?
Well, to be slightly less positive about the City for a moment, my terrible experience with UK banks (even I, with I hope a pretty good understanding of the system, could not get a bank account) when I arrived from the US was the thing that really motivated me to stick around and try to build something better in banking. By then I had of course fallen in love with London and the unique culture in the UK.
What’s one thing you love about the City?
I still consider London the fintech capital of the world and, despite some of the challenges seen over the past few years, a great place to start and run a business.
And one thing you would change?
I think it’s now beyond debate that the outcomes of Brexit have done a tremendous amount of damage to the City and the wider economy, so I’d like to see that change.
What’s your most memorable lunch?
It has to be sitting down in a branch of Costa Coffee near the Old Bailey in 2004 with a UK industry veteran who challenged and helped me amend my original business plan which then became the final pitch to secure investment in 2005. That coffee shop has lots of great memories that I won’t ever forget.
And any City faux pas?
When I first arrived in the UK, I was naive about the areas of London. I worked for Visa in the late 1990s and their UK HQ was near Kensington High Street, so I assumed that was ‘the City of London’. When setting up Providian UK, I was pleased to find an office available near Visa HQ and I thought this had put us in the ‘Square Mile’. When I went to a pub soon after my arrival with some British colleagues, I mentioned where I worked and was quickly told, ‘Kensington is a nice area but sorry mate it’s not even close to the Square Mile!’ I learned more about the geography of London before I spoke up again and within the year, I relocated the business near the Bank of England and could finally say I officially worked in the City.
What’s been your proudest moment?
I must mention two. First, is when Cashplus was authorised as a UK bank in February 2021 during the Covid lockdown, a great team effort at Cashplus. And second, when I was chair of the Emerging Payments Association (now the Payments Association) when we played a key role to help government and the regulators realise that access to the payment systems for non-banks was just as important as banks. Many said it couldn’t be done and to see this access provided reflect the openness of the regulators to allow non-banks better and more equal access to UK’s payments ecosystem was something that I’m proud for the UK and for the industry I work in to have made this happen.
And who do you look up to?
Dee Hock, a banking and payments innovator who was the catalyst, creator, and founder and CEO of Visa. Probably not as well-known as other celebrity business icons but that was not Dee’s style, nor mine. My respect for him was that he had greater purpose in life, convincing Bank of America to give away the card technology and IP they built so that Visa could be established to benefit all banks. The unselfish action resulted in one of the most innovative payment products used by customers globally today. Dee’s vision – that card and payment capability could not be owned by one bank but shared – has allowed current and future payments and banking professionals of today to leverage a global interoperable platform that, with MasterCard participation subsequently emulating Visa’s business model, resulted in an unrivalled global payment network supporting 2.3bn customers and over $20 trillion in commerce annually.
Are you optimistic for the back half of 2023?
I’m an optimistic by heart but with two wars and a cost of living crisis, compounded by a rise in interest rates, the several challenges in the UK and globally have yet to be fully realised. Consumers and businesses need to understand the cost of money is 10 times higher than a year ago and requires a need to reset personal and business activities to this new normal. Many employees today and entrepreneurs that are fuelling the future growth of the UK have never seen a 5.25 per cent base rate.
Being around for as long as I have, our company started when the base rate was similar to what it is now and therefore people have to realise the cost of money is not ‘high’ but simply trending along its 50-year average. Interest rates are likely not going to move much over the next 12 months but society will need to adapt to the return to these historical norms. This adaption will not be easy.
We’re going for lunch, and you’re picking – where are we going?
I’m an early riser so my schedule doesn’t tend to suit a long sit-down lunch. Hence why I love Tortilla, a transplanted California burrito fast food, but healthy, alternative establishment.
And if we’re grabbing a drink after work?
I am a big fan of a traditional London pub. Our office local is the Mug House, a cosy spot tucked away under the arches on Tooley Street. In the summer it’s hard to beat a drink with colleagues at the pop-up riverside bar outside our offices.
Where’s home during the week?
I’ve lived in Highgate for over a decade and consider it my permanent residence.
And where might we find you at the weekend?
Taking a walk on Hampstead Heath or venturing to a National Trust property to soak in all that makes Britain a place of great historical significance.
You’ve got a well-deserved two weeks off. Where are you going?
My wife is Maltese, and we spend a lot of our holiday time on the island, so probably a week there followed by a European adventure, likely Italy or France for lots of walking and eating along the way.
Favourite book: Anything from Simon Sinek
Favourite film: It’s a Wonderful Life
Favourite artist/musician: Elton John
Favourite place in London: Borough Market
Coffee order: Black filter coffee