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Acts of Leadership: Anne Boden, Starling Bank

In this episode of Acts of Leadership, Jordan Greenaway and Sam Patchett sit down to discuss the founder of Starling Bank, Anne Boden, and her bold decision to step down as CEO. The neobank reached an impressive milestone of three million customers in 2022. Will this decision help Starling build consumer trust, and what will the impact be on the rest of the sector?

Business getting ready for bank cards

Anne Boden is the founder of Starling Bank, one of the UK’s leading digital challenger banks. For our latest podcast episode, co-directors Jordan Greenaway and Sam Patchett discuss Anne’s recent decision to step down as CEO, despite the neobank reaching a record-high in profits this year. Listen in to find out what the motivations behind Anne’s decision might be, and discussion of what the future could hold for Starling.

About Anne Boden

Starling was founded by Anne in 2014, becoming the first UK digital challenger bank to become a member of the Single Euro Payments Area payments system. Anne previously worked for a number of the financial heavyweights, including the Bank of Scotland and Allied Irish Banks. Anne is also on the board of UK Finance and is chair of the government's women-led, high-growth enterprise taskforce.


Jordan (J): Welcome back to Acts of Leadership from Transmission Private. Each episode we discuss a news story that is making headlines for the right reasons, whether it's a CEO leading the way, an investor rethinking how to make an impact, or a brand bucking the trends. I'm Jordan Greenaway, commercial director at Transmission Private. Let's get started!

On this episode we're talking about former CEO of Starling Bank, Anne Boden. Today I'm joined by Sam Patchett, our client director at TP.

Sam (S): Thanks, Jordan. Good to be speaking today, good to be back into it on Acts of Leadership. So, I'm going to start by giving a bit of background on Anne Boden.

She started her career at Lloyds, she went on to work for a number of different financial heavyweights, including UBS and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Before starting Starling, she was CEO at Allied Irish Banks, which is one of the big four banks in Ireland. And then finally in 2004, that's when she founded Starling, and the bank has continued to grow ever since.

She's also been on the board of UK Finance and is chair of the government's women-led high-growth enterprise taskforce. She's been very vocal in the media over the last five or so years. She's previously commented on issues such as cryptocurrency and how women are treated in the banking sector.

So, today we're talking about some news that came out quite recently. It's about Anne choosing to step down as the CEO of Starling amid record high profits. So, Jordan, can you just talk us through the story pretty quickly?

J: Thanks, Sam. So, this news story, I think, hit about a week or two ago. I think it's an interesting story because it was kind of unexpected and Boden is a very high-profile figure, not only in fintech, but in the UK business community in general. Like you said, she’s spoken quite loudly and forthrightly about tech startups, et cetera. I think, in fact, she at one point had a bit of a falling out with the CTO of Starling, and there was a big newspaper story about that, about five or six years ago.

But you know, principally, she's built her profile over the last five or six years, building one of the few very successful fintech startups. If you look at the newspapers over the last month or so, you see Revolut, you see Monzo, you see all these kind of other fintechs, they're kind of struggling or having a period of difficulty, or they might say turbulence.

I'm sure it will reverse course at some point. But Starling is actually very profitable, unlike Revolut, it's already got a banking license and I think it’s got customer numbers of something like three million now. So, it's a very well-known brand, and I think the brand has been built on her own profile substantially over the last couple of years, especially when it comes to the regulators.

The key to Starling's success has been getting a banking license before the rest of the neobank startups. And I think the decision on the regulator side, to give them a banking license, was probably principally because of the respect in higher regard with which she's held. And I think it's actually quite interesting that of the various neobank founders, she's the one that came from the traditional banking sector.

She was the one who was at Allied Irish, for example, worked at UBS, so she probably knew that system and has probably been quite strategic about managing her profile over the last seven or eight years. So, given that she's raised her profile in a quite substantial and strategic way over the last eight years, it's surprising that suddenly, without any form of ramp up or lead up, in an announcement that announces the financial results, she also says " i'm="" stepping="" down".="" and="" she="" said,="" this="" is="" her="" reason,="" explanation,="" that="" wants="" to="" ensure="" there's="" no="" conflict="" of="" interest="" between="" being="" a="" shareholder="" the="" person="" runs="" bank.="" <="" p="">

Very, very interesting. So, that's the kind of background context to the story, well-known figure, highly associated with the startup, decision announced on the back of very good news about profits – profits up six times, big numbers. But then, out of the left field without any strategic ramp-up, she says "oh, and by the way, I'm stepping aside".

Anne Boden: Why did she make this decision?

J: So, that's the kind of context. So, Sam, I'll be interested in your take as to why you think this might have happened and what might have factored into her decision-making process about making this decision now.

S: Thanks Jordan for such a comprehensive summary of her background and her experience – and really painting a very clear picture of the situation. And, you are 100% right, it is quite a bold thing to do, and it's not something that we often see from leaders, not just in the business world, but it reminds me of politics now, for example. There's something to be said for quitting while you're ahead, but I don't think we see it often enough.

And I think quitting, in this context, quitting is actually the wrong word – it's not quitting at all. But I don't think we see it enough, we often see these leaders, whether it's in a business sense, whether it's in the political realm, kind of clinging on to power for as long as possible. And there's absolutely something to be said for acknowledging when the time might be right to step aside, whether or not the reason for her stepping aside was 100% just because she didn't want to cause a conflict of interest.

There could have been other factors at play, there could have been personal reasons as well. I mean, she's been doing it for almost 10 years now – not that I've got experience in starting and founding a fintech and growing it like she has, but I can imagine it takes a very big personal toll. And you have to take your hat off and respect someone for taking that decision.

Before delving into the why a bit more, I kind of want to step back and also just talk about the impact she's had on the banking sector more widely, not just neobanks, not just challenger banks, but the entire sector. As I touched on before, she has commented previously about issues in the sector and how women are treated in the sector, for example. And I just want to kind of go on record, actually, because I find it very hard to be objective when I'm talking about this because I'm unapologetically a massive advocate for challenger banks, for neobanks, for digital first banks. I actually recently stopped using one of the main high street banks that I was personally banking with, and now I'm only with digital first banks. And I think they've completely revolutionised the banking sector, and Anne Boden's got a massive role in that.

And I just want to pick out one of the quotes she says in the story where she says: "we provide a real role in society", and I think that comes back down to the kind of trust issues and the image problems that the wider banking sector has, because let's be honest, no one really likes banks. They've got a reputation of making profit from high fees, they've got a reputation for having poor custom service, all while, you know, often pocketing really big profits. And neobanks have played a massive role in changing that perception.

And then, if we look at the typical prototype of what the traditional banker looks like, it's an industry that's often dominated by men wearing blue suits, living in London, and again, she's completely blown the whole image out of the water. So, I've gone off on a bit of a tangent talking about her impact, but if we look at her decision, do you think there's anything more behind it, rather than just that conflict of interest issue, that she says in the interview? Do you think that's kind of a PR front or what do you think the reason is?

Starling Bank: timing of the announcement

J: So, I have a few thoughts on this. One is that, like you kind of hinted at earlier, the bank just announced that their profits have gone up sixfold. If you were thinking of moving on to the next challenge, or changing your professional life, or rebalancing professional and personal, if you've just announced that you've increased profits six times, it's probably quite a good time to say "actually, I'll now strategically and carefully step back", like you said, go out on a high.

So, I'm sure that factored into the decision. I also think probably, like you said, she's been in that role now for X number of years, probably knocking on 10 years, it takes a high personal toll and she probably wants to rebalance where she invests her personal time.

I think the conflict–of interest framing is quite interesting, I think there is a nugget of truth there, but for a slightly different reason, I have a slightly different read on it. The markets have been expecting Starling to go public, or wanting to go public, for the last couple of years. There's constantly been speculation about will they go public this year, are they going to go public in London or elsewhere, and what valuation are they going to go public on?

I think in the most recent interview, Anne Boden said that decision's been delayed by at least 12 months because of the turbulence in the market. Now, if you look at some of the big tech startups that have floated globally, but also in the London market, when they've stayed under the control of the CEO and founder – there are a couple of quite high-profile tech startups in the UK market that are still controlled and led by the founders. Those founders have come under criticism, they've come under criticism because the markets have said the skills that might be required to grow a business from zero to 250,300, 500 people are very, very different types of skills to serving on a corporate public board.

So, I think the market in general, the public markets, are sometimes a little sceptical of public mature businesses being run by these more techy entrepreneur types. And actually, if you are priming for an IPO, you probably might want someone who's a little more boring – maybe boring is the wrong word, maybe someone with kind of corporate gravitas, something like that.

And maybe she sat down and said,maybe I'm not that person, I recognise what I am good at, what I enjoy doing, I enjoy getting punchy in the papers, talking about how the banks are letting down consumers, I enjoy going in the papers getting punchy about how the city's failing women. And actually, maybe I am less inclined to play the role of the grey corporate boardroom type.

And we've seen a couple of examples in the UK at least, but also internationally, think of WeWork, et cetera, of founders who tried to make that transition and it hasn't gone well. So maybe, actually, it was a moment of quiet reflection about strengths and weaknesses and also about what the business needed. And I think that might be cashed out in terms of conflict of interest, but maybe there's something deeper going on there intellectually.

S: And if you were to put yourself in her shoes, Jordan, and finding yourself in a position where for the last 10 years you've done nothing but build and scale this company into a tremendously successful and everyday name in the banking sector. What's next for her? Does she stay in the sector? Does she do something completely different? Does she just put her feet up? What do you think the future holds for Anne Boden?

The future for Anne Boden and Starling Bank

J: That's really interesting as well, because by character she's not like a traditional entrepreneur. She started in the corporate world working at these big heady banks like UBS et cetera, big glass buildings, and then left there to do a startup, so she seems to straddle that divide perhaps in ways that other entrepreneurs don't. I think probably there might be a moment of pause and catching your breath, understandably so, but what we do need is more people like Anne Boden, going into the UK's tech sector and becoming an investor.

Because I think too many of the investors in the UK market are either VC – VC is great, of course, but they tend to be kind of quite male-dominated, they tend to be run by people who went straight into VC rather than the startup ecosystem originally. They tend to make lots of kind of bets, and some even actually be a little bit corporate, even though they don't want to appear to be corporate.

Either you have that end or in the other end you have the big corporate investors, like the big banks. So actually, someone who comes from a very different background, has been very willing to put her head above the parapet and say things that other people aren't, and call attention to the problems and tell people quite rightly what's going wrong.

Lots of tech startups in the UK, for some reason, don't reach the scale that I think they should do. Lots of the tech startups that we founded in the UK don't end up listing on the London Stock Exchange. I'm sure she has answers to those questions. So actually, I would love to see her play a role as a kind of investor, or advisor, or kind of a policy advisor in government on how to solve these problems.

Of course, though, if Mrs. Boden wants to go off on a yacht somewhere and sit on the Bahamas, absolutely she has the right to. But it'd be great if she became a kind of an advocate of the UK tech ecosystem and put her kind of clear intelligence, intellect, and experience into solving some of those core problems that I think we have to face as a country.

S: Absolutely. She's certainly got plenty to offer to the tech ecosystem here in the UK, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Anne.

J: Absolutely agreed, Sam. Thanks very much.

So, thank you for joining us for this episode of Acts of Leadership. Tune in next time for more discussions of how the leaders of today are making waves.

To find out more about Transmission Private and our work supporting entrepreneurs, CEOs, executives, and investors with their personal profiles, please go to www.transmission-private.com

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