The Interview: Sue Fox

Written by: Eila Madden Posted: 13/05/2019

BL62_SueFoxIn the latest chapter of an impressive 30-year career at HSBC, Sue Fox has joined the bank’s Channel Islands and Isle of Man operation as CEO. She comes armed with an agenda of growth, great service and inclusion

What’s your background and how did you get to where you are now?

It’s probably not the typical CEO story. I was born and raised in Liverpool. I’m an only child. I’m from a working-class family. I’m state school educated. From around the age of 12, due to my father’s occupation – he became a pub landlord – we moved around a few times, so I went through a number of different senior schools. My parents instilled a really good work ethic in me and a belief that I could be anything I wanted to be. 

So, despite that background, which is not maybe typical for people in my position, I still had a very strong degree of confidence that I could succeed.

I actually left school at 18 with A levels. I had a place secured at Sheffield University and my intention was to have a year off. I wrote to five local high-street banks, asking for a job. It was meant to tide me over until I went off to do my further education. The local Midland Bank branch manager was recruiting at the time, so I interviewed in the branch and 31 and a half years later, I’m still here. 

My reason for staying in banking was very much around the passion I felt for being able to serve customers. The past 30 years have been varied, challenging and exciting, with the benefit of working for the same group. 

Once I was established in the firm, I got on to a management training programme, which supported me through doing my banking exams. I also got a first-class degree in banking and finance. 

Tell us more about your roles at HSBC over the past three decades.

I’ve worked in frontline and head office roles in most major cities in the UK and New York. I spent time in London in the late 1990s/early 2000s working in service quality. That very much shaped my priorities for driving the right culture and doing the right thing for our customers.

In my early 40s, I was the Global Head of Physical Distribution with responsibility for the branch and self-service network globally. I was travelling a lot, visiting two or three countries a week. It was a fantastic experience to help shape and influence all of our markets globally. 

While in that role, I was 43 going on 44, and I was having a baby. It was my first child, so this was very exciting, but a little bit unexpected. 

While I was on maternity leave, I was approached from within the group about the CEO role that was coming up in M&S Bank, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of HSBC. That brought me full circle because the headquarters for M&S Bank are in Chester.

I’d lived away from the north west for 20 years or so and this brought me back into an infrastructure with family and friends that I hadn’t benefited from for a number of years. It was also a really excellent and unique opportunity within the group to be a CEO of a challenger bank.

I did that for five years and it was a great experience. But as a career banker with HSBC, the real aspiration is to be a country CEO and to run a market. There had been approaches for different places, but when I was approached to consider the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, it was the dream job that came at a great time for me and my family as well. 

It’s a fantastic market that gives me the opportunity to lead across all of our different business lines, and you have the added complexities of the multi-jurisdictional aspects that this business brings. So it’s a very exciting opportunity that will really stretch and challenge me. 

I’ve spent time here on a personal basis as well. Being part of island life and being able to feel that I could be a force for good in this community was also something that attracted me to the role.

What took you to the islands in the past?

My partner Paul was actually living in Jersey when we met and, when we had our son, he was still here, so there was lots of commuting backwards and forwards. I spent a large part of my maternity leave here in Jersey and became very familiar with the island. 

My young son Samuel, who’s just six, was here over Easter and we were talking about how he’d been here before and he’d already been to the zoo when he was a baby. It was that personal connection and personal familiarity with the island that was also a draw for me.

You’ve been in post for around three months now. How would you assess what is and isn’t working well within the operation?

We’re performing strongly overall across all of our lines of business, which really gives me confidence for the future and tells me that our strategy is working and it’s the right one, and we’re doing the right things in terms of our offerings for customers.

The strategy we have here is to invest in and grow the business and a lot of that investment is around ensuring we have tailored products and propositions for all our clients and that they’re delivered in the most streamlined way. 

With that in mind, it can on occasion be quite difficult to do business with us – for example, how we open accounts for customers. We are investing in technology to make it simpler, better and faster for our customers and our people.

How do you intend to build on the strategy you’ve inherited from your predecessor?

I want to ensure that we stay focused on what our customers want. Connectivity with customers is absolutely critical for me. Customer needs are dynamic, so a strategy that was put in place two years ago wouldn’t always remain relevant to what our customers want today. 

So, the strategic direction is the right one, but the focus I want to bring to it is how we remain connected to our customers’ evolving wants and needs. 

I also want to create a culture and environment where people feel empowered and trusted and able to bring the best to our customers, and ensure we deliver against our strategic goals 

BL62_SueFox2In terms of delivering what your customers want, is there anything specific that you’d like to focus on?

I’ll share one example. If we think about our local business, customers want to feel more valued and feel that their relationship with us might go beyond their banking relationship. So in early June, we’re launching Island Privileges, which will provide additional local benefit for HSBC customers and will help them feel special about banking with us.

HSBC is one of the banks affected by the UK’s new rules on ring-fencing retail banking activities, from which Channel Islands operations have been excluded. What opportunities does this give you?

Ring-fencing has been a major transformational change. Internally, there was a lot of work in the background and a technological impact. I think we did a great job as a group to really minimise the impact on our customers.

We’re very much a separate business from the UK bank now, and have become even more strategically important to the group because of our new autonomy. This has given us the ability to secure investment from the group to deliver against the growth aspirations that we have and to be in charge of our own destiny, to a larger degree.

You’ve been publicly recognised in the past for your support for the LGBT+ community. Why is diversity and inclusion (D&I) so high on your agenda?

We can talk about LGBT+ and gender diversity, but for me, diversity and inclusion are very much around having a fully inclusive workplace that’s open to different points of view and where every colleague feels safe and able to bring their whole self to work. If they can bring their whole self to work, they can be at their best. 

We need to create that environment because I think it’s the minimum that any colleague should expect – and the minimum we should offer.

Valuing people because of, and not in spite of, the difference they bring is something that I’m really passionate about. It’s important that we don’t just pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Well, we accept difference or we’ve got diversity in our team’. We need to actively embrace and celebrate difference and it’s important to keep talking about it, because it’s not happening everywhere or for everyone.

When you hear stories of how people have been discriminated against in mainstream environments, which you wouldn’t expect to hear today, it just makes me more resolute to ensure that everybody in my business feels safe and secure and respected for being who they are. If people don’t feel they have to hide themselves, which takes effort, that effort can be directed into being a great business to work in and delivering great customer service.

Was there a particular story that triggered your commitment to this issue?

Yes, there have been a number of stories. One in particular was from a former colleague, who told me about how, while at her previous employer, she came out as a gay woman and introduced people to her partner. 

She said attitudes towards her palpably changed. People would go quiet when she went in a room, she was taken off distribution lists, she wasn’t invited to certain meetings and she told us that when she moved in with her partner, somebody burnt her car out outside her house. 

It felt unbelievable that was happening in this day and age in mainstream society. I actually felt quite guilty for not realising that this level of discrimination and fear was happening out there.

What’s your take on HSBC Channel Islands’ record on diversity and inclusion?

If I look at my immediate team, they are from different backgrounds, different types of experience, different cultures and different nationalities. 

There’s a good representation of the teams and the communities we serve, but there’s more to do. We need to ensure that everybody feels, regardless of their background, experience and preferences, HSBC is a place that embraces them and what they bring to the table. This diversity of thought is really important to me. One thing I always say is that if everyone around the table is thinking the same thing, then nobody’s thinking. 

On a practical level, what would you like to see people who work for you doing to foster this D&I culture?

To be role models. The fact that I’ve got quite a diverse senior team enables the rest of our business to be able to look up and say, ‘There’s someone like me’. We do need to share our stories and encourage our people to share their stories too. 

I think we need to be cognisant of unconscious bias and challenge ourselves to not recruit in our own image – and that goes across all people with all different backgrounds. I want people to continually challenge themselves and each other, to be open to different ideas and views, and to nurture people. 

Twelve months from now, what are the main things you hope to have achieved?

Twelve months down the line, I would want our colleagues to be advocates of HSBC, to be advocates of our products and services and to feel like they are valued, supported and that they are in a workplace where they want to grow and develop their careers. I would want customers to be equally as enamoured with the services that we provide. I would also want our people and customers to recognise our commitment to do what’s right for them and that we treat them with empathy. And, obviously, I want us to be delivering against our strategy in achieving our growth aspirations. So not much!

It’s important to say that those are not just 12-month goals; they are forever goals. At any point in time, each of those aspects should be better than they were previously. We’re on that journey already. 

We will have employees who feel like that, we’ll have customers who feel like that and we’re a successful business. But the more we invest in that workplace culture, in being customer-centric and delivering sustainable long-term results, the more likely that we’re going to be here for another 150 years.

FACT FILE

Name: Sue Fox
Age: 50
Position: CEO, HSBC, Channel Islands and Isle of Man
Studied at: University of Central England
Graduated in: Banking and finance
Member of: Chartered Institute of 
Bankers, Chartered Management Institute, National Centre for Universities and Business
Partner: Paul
Mum to: Samuel, aged six
Hobbies: Squash, golf, family time
Did you know: Sue was ranked 52nd in the FT HERoes Champions of Women in Business 2018 Top 100 Female Champions list, and 9th (2017) and 15th (2018) in the OUTstanding LGBT+Allies list

 


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