Jayne-Anne Gadhia

My speech this week at the WCIB in London’s Guildhall

It is a real privilege for me to be part of this annual banquet tonight – albeit a tough task to follow two such distinguished speakers.

First if all, many congratulations to Peter on being installed as the 17th Master of the Company. It is an important role and I know everyone thanks you for all of the hard work you put in to it and for the humour you bring to it.

I think humour is an important part of business life. We spend so much time at work it’s important to be able to have a laugh with friends and colleagues.

One of my colleagues, our erstwhile General Counsel, often says he can tell the state of the business from the level of laughter that comes from my room.

Often that comes from the stories that we all tell each other about things that have happened to us over the years and working at Virgin – as I have for almost 25 years now – you will imagine that there are many stories to tell.

Back in 1994, when my Virgin journey began, we were aiming to make investments available to everyone over the telephone. Norwich Union partnered Virgin to offer personal equity plans to the retail market – a pretty new concept at the time.

We signed the joint venture deal in late December 1994 and wanted to get the business up and running in time to have taken a lot of investment before the 5 April tax year end.

With so many hurdles to overcome, regulators to satisfy, systems to build and people to hire this seemed like a ridiculously short time.

But Richard Branson was having none of it.

‘It only took 90 days to launch an airline’ he said. ‘What can be so complicated about financial services?’

And he had a good answer too when the regulators – IMRO in those days – asked why a brand famous for music and airlines could possibly be fit and proper to enter the serious business of financial services.

‘There is no more heavily regulated business than an airline’ he said. ‘People wouldn’t get on my planes if they didn’t think they would get off in one piece’.

So we got our approvals and launched the business with time to spare. A real lesson to me to move things fast and to think about things differently.

The business went well and it wasn’t long before we were being approached by all the big banks to offer their banking products under the Virgin brand.

But we didn’t want to copy another bank’s products. We wanted to create something new and different that would really chime with customers.

It was an unlikely source that brought that to us.

RBS wanted to launch a current account mortgage and Sir George Mathewson – then just plain George felt they needed to do that in partnership with us.

When I asked why he said ‘two reasons Jayne-Anne. First you’ve proved you’ve got the culture to do it and we haven’t. And second, if it all goes well I will get half of the profits. But if it all goes badly, with your brand no-one will know I had anything to do with it!’

So started our foray into banking.

We launched the Virgin One account in 1998 and in 2001 RBS acquired it in full and I and my whole team – and the business we had built from scratch, went to RBS – hook, line and sinker.

Richard hand-wrote me a note the day the deal was done.

‘If you don’t like corporate life’ he said ‘just pick up the phone and you can come back’.

Timing being everything, in October 2006, having not spoken to anyone at Virgin for a while, I rang Richard and said ‘we are ready to come back’.

True to his word, it was all sorted out the following week and I – and in the end about 80 of my colleagues- returned to Virgin in May 2007.

We thought we would relaunch the Virgin One account and Macquarie were all set to provide the funding lines until…..

The queues started to form outside Northern Rock. The liquidity markets closed. And I had 82 people on my hands and no plan.

So we decided to turn our minds to helping Northern Rock.

I can tell you that being part of a banking crisis without having created it was the best experience of my life.

Part of that experience was meeting Sir Brian Pitman who many of you will have known.

Ex CEO and then ex Chair of Lloyds Bank he had brilliant stories to tell as we walked, at his insistence, from meeting to meeting around London.

He had met everyone who was anyone and one day I asked him who the best leader he had ever met was.

His answer surprised me.

It was Ronald Reagan.

During Reagan’s presidency, there was a financial crisis in Mexico and the President asked a number of top international bankers to meet him in the White House with a view to putting forward a rescue plan.

Before the meeting, all the bankers agreed that they were not going to use their balance sheets to bail out Mexico and were delighted to finish a two day meeting with their pockets intact.

When they got back to their hotels on each bed was an invite to join the President for drinks in the Oval Office.

When Reagan arrived he thanked them for their time in considering the Mexican crisis and that he noted the outcome of the meeting. ‘Now’ he said, ‘you would be doing America a great Service by saving Mexico from ruin. There’s a book on the way out for you to sign to commit your support’.

‘And’ said Brian ‘to a man – for they were all men – every one of us signed like lambs – and Mexico was saved’.

In writing these words it has exercised me to think of how such a meeting might be managed in the Oval Office today.

What I hope is that not all of the people there would be men.

But there is still a long way to go in achieving gender equality in financial services for sure.

Since 2015 I have been the Government’s Women in Finance Champion having been astonished and disappointed to find that women hold only 14% of senior management jobs in financial services.

To improve this position we launched the HMT Women in Finance Charter last year, encouraging financial services firms to commit to internally set targets for gender balance in their organisation.

Firms employing over 60% of employees in UK financial services have signed up – and, I’m pleased to say, the majority have disclosed self-imposed targets of getting to a 50:50 gender balance in their organisations in the coming few years.

That is great news.

But it does mean that companies employing 40% of the UK financial services workforce have not yet signed.

That’s not good enough and I’d like to enlist your support in making things better.

Because a diverse and balanced workforce is a better place to work. Better decisions are taken. And research shows that return on equity can be up by as much as two percentage points compared with companies that do not embrace diversity.

I’d like to think that we in this room could really lead this agenda and make a substantial change to UK financial services as a result.

Because leadership is important.

I commend the Lord Mayor on his focus on and leadership of the business of trust during his year in office.

At a time when business seems somewhat discredited – trust matters.

The Oxfam story shows how easy it is for a few people to damage the work of so many.

The Presidents Club saga showed that some businesses are still out of touch.

And continued coverage of poor banking practises means that the problems of the past are not entirely behind us.

So it is down to us to change things.

This year marks the centenary of women winning the right to vote.

I can hardly believe it has been only 100 years!

Nor can I believe how hard fought the battle was and how so few brave leaders inspired women everywhere and changed our politics and democracy for ever.

Now we all have the potential to set up businesses – and to do that fast.

We all have the responsibility to make sure our customers are safe wherever they are.

We all have the power to work with people we think can change things – even if we think we can’t.

We can all share stories to inspire a new generation.

Maybe we can’t all speak with Presidents – but we can use our resources to change things for good.

And we all have a voice to demand equality, diversity and parity for all people everywhere – but especially in our workplaces.

If each of us do this then I believe we will be contributing to the business of trust.

And, as the Lord Mayor has so eloquently said, trust will change things for the better.

Thank you for listening.

Now can I ask you to join me in a toast to the Worshipful Company of International Bankers and to the Business of Trust.


About Ian Humphreys