In our continuing series, in association with the Breaking Banks radio show, looking at accomplished and interesting women working and changing the FinTech sector, Liz Lumley sits down with Deanna Oppenheimer – Founder of CameoWorks and former head of Barclays Retail and Business Banking.
This interview was first broadcast on Brett King's Voice America radio show, Breaking Banks on Thursday, May 28th. You can listen to the full broadcast here.
The interview in its entirety can be heard here.
LUMLEY: What is it that you do?
OPPENHEIMER: I seem to be pivoting quite a bit as I go along. But in a nutshell I connect up innovation, mostly from the West Coast in the US, with global corporations and entities. I sit on some global boards of very big entities - Axa Insurance, Tesco, Tesco Bank, NCR - all global business and technology retailing and financial services. I also advise about a dozen or so CEOs – mostly in FinTech, some outside that space – mostly in the earlier parts of their career, around 30/35 years of age. Getting into that place where they are growing that business into that global space.
It is really exciting, I see a breadth of things across the place.
LUMLEY: I find it interesting that you are working in this space, specifically financial services, from the West Coast.
OPPENHEIMER: Yes, absolutely. The nice thing about being in Seattle - with Amazon here and Starbucks in the payments space and a number of other established players – it is just a plethora of emerging technology players here. And then it is only a less than an hour flight down to Silicon Valley. Plus it is a pretty darn nice place to live – I must say that. Also very accessible to Europe – because you just jump on a non-stop plane and jump over the poles. It is shorter than a lot of people believe. I’ve done it for a number of years.
LUMLEY: You’ve long been a proponent of customer-centric strategies – what does a bank need to do from a practical perspective to be customer-centric?
OPPENHEIMER: Historically, when I was a leading a bunch of retail bank initiatives – I always defined it as a change or action or a decision that you took that you wouldn’t have otherwise done and you did it solely on the basis of customer insight.
A lot of times that might have meant, it didn’t look like it would pencil off financial, initially. It was taking a flyer on the customer – so to speak. When we were creating customer driven, customer centric offerings, starting here with the bank I was with in Seattle, it was a common thing to do because we really didn’t have other banks to look at. We were looking at customer service from the Nordstrom perspective; we were looking at branch distribution models from the Starbucks perspective…
LUMLEY: …it’s almost as if you didn’t have any bad habits to follow…
OPPENHEIMER: …We certainly didn’t have any banking habits to follow. We had leaders from other industries that were right here in town – that we emulated a lot of their practices. Today, though. I think it is really interesting because – the customer today – because of technology, because of all the things that you know so well and the whole emerging FinTech space – customers can really drive the most important decision in banking. And that is: ‘will I stay or will I go?’
In the old days I had a village or I had a town or a neighbourhood – and there were one or two banking options. The way I would bank was through a branch banking experience – I didn’t have portable credit cards and payment options. You had one way or the highway. It was a very different experience than today. The customer, customer centricity, customer driven – whatever you want to call it – it that they really are in charge. They are in charge because they can keep their business there, they can take parts of their business, parts of their revenues and they can port it literally at one or two clicks. And that is why that is absolutely so essential to day. It is not a nice to have, it is a must have. Because whether they are with you or they won’t it is at their discretion.
LUMLEY: What is your view of challenger banks?
OPPENHEIMER: First off, coming from a country where there were eight or nine thousand banks when I started and today in the US there are over seven thousand banks and credit unions, I think that fact that the UK now has a few more challenger banks makes for a bit more broad-based and healthy competitive environment. I said this at Barclays – the more consumer options there are the better banks get – the more opportunities there are for careers in banking. It just makes for a better ecosystem and a better environment.
Today, I think is happening is that there are two things going on – in addition to that customer bit. One is: Capital markets are seeing an opportunity to deploy capital in the UK. And that talks to the vibrancy of the market. There are people that are anxious to be deploying capital.
The second thing that has happened is the regulators in this space. There is a lot to be said in banking about the negative side of regulation – in terms of intrusive regulation. On the challenger bank side – they have been very encouraging trying to get more banking coming into that market.
So, I think those two things – where you have a regulatory environment that is conducive and you have capital that is willing to come in – it is making for a fertile space for that challenger movement. There are nurturing roots that are going to take hold and continue that development, I believe.
LUMLEY: What is your background?
OPPENHEIMER: Well, I am from a very small town in the Northwest of the US called Parma, Idaho. I had to drive to a town 14 miles away to learn how to stop at a stop light – so that gives you sense of how small that was. I grew up in an environment where there were no limitations to what you could do – so many people wanted you to be involved in whatever was going on because there was never enough people to do everything.
I went to a liberal arts university called University of Peugeot Sound in Tacoma, Washington. I started about three years after university at a bank - Washington Mutual Bank in Seattle. At that time we had 53 branches and less than $2 billion in assets and through a series of acquisitions and growth we grew that to about $350 billion and over two thousand branches – by the time I left around 20 years later.
I was then recruited back then to do the Barclays turnaround and then that was what got me into the UK.
LUMLEY: What attracted you to the financial services industry then?
OPPENHEIMER: I worked for a bit in DC in a first job out of university and then moved back to Seattle. Banking in the US was going through de-regulation. Banking had been a very regulated industry. It was going through de-regulation on pricing and other things and I had also had a sales and marketing background. So I was looking for something that was challenging and that was going through de-regulation – that could use those two components of what my back ground had been.
So I was looking for challenges in banking and I have to say today, they are still there. It continues to be a really interesting space.
LUMLEY: What are you passionate about that isn’t related to this space?
OPPENHEIMER: Family is a real important thing. I think they keep you humble, I thing they keep you engaged, I think they are a lot of fun and it is a wonderful legacy to see your children growing up and have careers of their own. So that would be a top passion for me.
LUMLEY: How many children do you have?
OPPENHEIMER: I have two, grown adult children. One is working in DC in the non-profit sector and the other one is actually in banking in Chicago. I will say from my days at Barclays with the Premier League football – I became an Arsenal fan. And I also, since my youth, have been an avid water-skier.
LUMLEY: What has been your biggest challenge?
OPPENHEIMER: There hasn’t been any real setbacks (touching wood) I’ve had a lot of opportunities. A lot of people who believed in me and gave me a lot of chances. My challenges have been of my own making. And it is always around timing. The core decisions have worked pretty well for me, but, when they are spot on the timing is absolutely right. I just knew it was the right time when I left Washington Mutual – I left after 20 years – it was a good time to leave based on what I needed to be doing and the evolution of that company. That opened up my opportunity to come to Barclays and to come to the UK, which was a fabulous experience. So, that timing was right.
A lot of times I have decisions that I know I should be making – and the people decisions, the tough decisions you have to make and I ponder and I worry and I wait and then the timing is off and that never is good.
So my challenges are one, of my own doing and two, it is always around that sense of ‘you know you need to do it – you should act’.
LUMLEY: What are you most proud of?
OPPENHEIMER: The thing that I am most proud of is the people that I’ve got to work with – watch them now and see what they are doing in business and the things that we were doing when we were there.
Whether it was at Washington Mutual and the growth we were doing or the innovation that we had or it was the turnaround of the business in the UK for Barclays and setting the stage for them to create innovation on top of that. All of that had to do with people coming together to do extraordinary things. And to get to lead teams to do that was a privilege indeed.
And now it is fun to working with a breadth of CEOs across a wide range of experiences and geographic reach, as well as different industries and help them develop those leadership skills as well and helping them have a hand in doing that.
LUMLEY: What advice would you give a startup?
OPPENHEIMER: What is great is that I get to meet a lot of startups. The first thing I say to them is a couple of things. It is all about the people. How to always know how to bring in people who are better than you at things you are not so great at doing. It is something about knowing a lot about yourself and being vulnerable to recognising your weaknesses and then shoring that up. It’s all about the talent.
The second piece of advice I would give them is that the funding is as much art as it is science. And you really need to understand how to do the funding. That has been the biggest surprise to me – coming from public market companies – working with startups. What point in time do you raise money? What point in time do you go beyond family and friends? Everyone comes into a startup with a great idea for a product or service and too few of them focus on that aspect of it. Because it is only as good as someone is going to fund you at that point in time when you need to be looking at those options.
My third word of advice is to stay balanced. It is really tricky to do – early on and particularly for a young entrepreneur – they have all those pressures that we all try to remember – when you are trying to get your company up and running, you’re trying to get your personal life up and running. You have new relationships, sometimes families starting, ageing parents all those types of things. You need to do whatever small thing you need to do to stay balanced and stay humble.
I had a great mentor. I guy by the name of Lou Pepper – he remains one of my mentors today. He said: ‘It is not that they want ‘Lou Pepper’ they want the CEO of this business.’ So if you get too confused and think that it is really all about you, you have really missed it. It is about your privilege to get to lead that company. So never forget to keep that humility very close at hand.