Joe Gordon likes to climb mountains. Among his conquests is Mount Teide, a 12,000ft volcano in Tenerife.
“I like to walk up hills and mountains,” he says. “I am a big fan of a healthy body and a healthy mind.”
It is perhaps just as well that he has a head for heights.
Because, just 24 months after getting his first job in banking, he is now the boss of telephone and online bank First Direct.
At the age of 33 he is one of the youngest people ever to have made it to the top of the UK banking industry.
Met by the boss
It is Joe himself who greets us at the reception of First Direct’s steely grey office block in Leeds.
Despite having 2,900 employees in the building, he speaks to both the receptionist and a server in the cafe by name.
This weekend marks the end of his first month in the job, which he got two years after joining First Direct’s parent company, HSBC.
While he admits he hasn’t been in banking very long, he does have plenty of experience of handling customers.
“I’ve worked in customer service since day one. Ultimately what we’re trying to achieve is great customer service. So if somebody comes in who can deliver customer service, I think that’s a bit of credibility for me.”
But in an era when 90% of his customers bank on the internet, personal contact has become harder.
It was all so different when First Direct launched in 1989 as the UK’s first telephone bank, pioneering banks without branches.
CV: Joe Gordon
- Education: Degree in Business Management from Lancaster University
- Previous jobs: Sainsbury’s management trainee, BT fast-track scheme
‘You’re on the carrots, mate’
Joe’s formative experience was in the grocery section of Sainsbury’s, where he worked as a graduate trainee.
“You step in there with bravado, and the first thing they said to me was: ‘You’re on the carrots, mate,’ which was a great grounding.
“Some well-to-do women educated me on the difference between chicory and endive. That’s where I first got involved in customer service. And that’s where I first started to think: how do you improve things, how do you make it better for people?”
But the boss of a bank also needs to be good with numbers.
So a later stint in the forecasting department, where he had to predict how many Easter eggs the supermarket would sell, probably helped.
Lawrence Christensen, a Sainsbury’s director at the time, remembers him well.
“He’s very good at IT, and a very quick learner. But his ability to integrate into a team, build a team and run a team would be his greatest strength.”
Joe went on to work for BT, on its fast-track programme, where he visited call centres in India no fewer than 22 times.
Top of Joe’s to-do list is keeping pace with technology.
First Direct customers can already use a voice recognition system to log in to their accounts, or a fingerprint system on the app.
“I like fingerprint and voice ID, because it speaks to technology solving problems,” he says.
“There is a problem with passwords – and if you forget your password, your memorable word, and your inside leg measurement when you were five. But actually technology can solve that.”
To make sure it keeps up-to-date, the bank is now studying possible applications for artificial intelligence.
However, there are other issues on the horizon that are harder to foresee.
Last summer the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) heralded the era of so-called open banking.
This will allow third-party providers – with our consent – to access our banking details, and recommend where we should go for the cheapest loan, the best mortgage or the highest savings rates.
When it starts to take effect from 2019, it could turn the banking industry upside down.
But Joe believes it is a positive development.
“This, for us, is a massive opportunity, and an opportunity we will relish.”
However, the future of banking still has many unknowns.
“In a world where the biggest taxi firm doesn’t own any cars, where the biggest accommodation provider doesn’t have any real estate, and where the biggest news website doesn’t own any content – we want to play a part in shaping what banking will look like in that world.
“Can you paint a wildly dystopian future? Yes, but you can also paint a reality where we’ve got a very real part to play.”
First Direct already faces serious competition.
Back when it started, it was the lean kid on the block, without the expense of branches to maintain.
But put against the new internet-only banks such as Atom, Tandem and Starling, which employ a handful of people, its wages bill is considerable.
Other challenger banks are also in attack mode. In 28 years, First Direct has acquired 1.35 million customers. Yet after just seven years, Metro Bank has already acquired 915,000.
“Anywhere where disruptors, or fintech, or challenger banks will come in is where they see gaps,” says Joe.
“It’s for us to make sure we don’t leave those gaps.”
In the meantime his personal life is also going to be busy. He and his partner have a baby on the way.
And he is planning more expeditions.
“I would like to do Kilimanjaro,” he says, adding after a pause, “or maybe next year.”
With so many mountains in Joe Gordon’s future, he will certainly need his penchant for altitude.