Alex Marsh

Alex Marsh of Close Brothers Retail Finance

Meet the MD: Alex Marsh of Close Brothers Retail Finance

Alex Marsh of Close Brothers Retail Finance catches up with BQ in our latest Meet the MD column to talk all things retail finance and management...

What is it the company does?

Close Brothers Retail Finance is a multi award-winning retail finance provider championing specialist retailers, from start-ups and small businesses to leading brands. Our point of sale finance products allow shoppers to pay over time in simple, fixed monthly payments – helping our retailers convert more browsers into buyers, boosting sales and customer loyalty. Every day we wake up knowing our role is to help retailers to thrive, not just survive, as we help them unlock growth by making their products more affordable.

As a young business we are a fast paced and forward thinking team. We are seeking long-standing partnerships with our retailers, earning their trust and loyalty through access to industry-leading technology that is crucially underpinned by dedicated expertise in retailer account management, marketing and product / customers analytics.

We’re also very fortunate to be part of Close Brothers Group plc, a FTSE 250 merchant bank, who work with over 280,000 British businesses and provide finance to over 2 million customers and are A-rated by leading credit rating agencies. As a group we’re proud to support British business through good times and when things are a little uncertain. It’s what we do.

What does your role involve?

As managing director my top priority is to build and retain the super talented team that will deliver the full potential of our strategy and proposition as we rapidly scale up.

In the rare moments when I’m not dreaming up new ways to improve our business (whilst playing with my Rubik’s cube), I provide the day-to-day leadership across commercial development, marketing, sales, credit, operations, analytics and finance.

There are a lot of meetings, but I’m at my happiest when out and about with our team, meeting retailers and spreading the word to anyone who will listen about our unique offering.

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?

I’ve always been inquisitive and loved learning, unexpectedly earning a first class master’s degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge, having attended comprehensive schools in my home town of Brighton. I continued on that learning journey by gaining my chartered accountancy qualification with PwC, where I spent six incredible years in their London and Sydney offices.

In 2009, a chance phone call with a head-hunter led me to take the bold (and at the time what many considered bonkers) decision to join a bank - Close Brothers Group - during the midst of the worst banking crisis in history.

From day one, the development opportunities at Close Brothers have been endless, with a fusion of head office leadership roles in Projects, Finance and Strategy, and also highly operational business roles including COO for our market leading insurance financing business. This rapid rotation across such a breadth of disciplines and roles over the past 8 years has equipped me well to progress to my current role as managing director of Close Brothers Retail Finance.

What do you believe makes a great leader?

The top two qualities I respect most in the leaders I’ve come across are being inquisitive and also a good listener, to help drive collaboration – being an active listener is definitely a skill I’ve worked particularly hard at building into my own approach as MD for a business looking to scale up quickly.

When I first joined Close Brothers in 2009 I benefited from working closely with the Chief Executive of the Banking Division at the time, Stephen Hodges. Despite having spent over 30 years in the group and knowing the inner workings of the bank inside-out, he was always asking my opinion, and that of my team – seeking new ideas or perspectives. His willingness to listen and learn, harnessing the capabilities of the team, was hugely inspirational!

I’d say the third quality of being a great leader is creating an environment where people are engaged and comfortable enough to be themselves. In my personal experience I perform better when I do not have to play a part and am free to laugh and have fun.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

I’d say the biggest challenge is balancing the agility and relentless pace of change required for a disruptive digital start-up, particularly one in the fast-moving retail sector, whilst meeting  the standards of Close Brothers Group ; standards that underpin the unblemished reputation and the company’s track record cultivated over nearly 140 years.

Building an internal start-up has been a bigger cultural challenge than I had anticipated for our team, our group stakeholders and myself. Being a part of a start-up does require a different mind-set and it’s been a learning curve for everyone involved. The relationships I have built within the group over the past eight years have been invaluable and I’m very grateful for the expert support we receive which makes us stand out head and shoulder above our competitors.

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

I’m a really keen long-distance runner both for the physical and mental benefits – allowing my shoulders to un-hunch and my brain to zone out after a busy day or week. You will often find me running round my hometown of Brighton along the coast or the South Downs with my brothers, Nick and Greg, as it gives us a great chance to catch up. My favourite run though has to be the weekly 2km junior parkrun I do most Sundays with my six year old daughter Isabelle.

That said, it’s not all about the zen and I still maintain quite a stubborn competitive streak when it comes to running, frequently pushing myself for faster times and longer distances. Most recently I joined a team from Close Brothers Group to complete a 100km ultra-marathon for a local charity - from which my feet are still recovering now!

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I’ve always been a bit of a super-nerd when it comes to maths and chemistry, and I can remember desperately wanting to be an inventor or a scientist doing wild experiments.

Progressing from children’s chemistry sets to an amateur lab in the garage (complete with test-tubes and a Bunsen burner) then having the opportunity to study chemistry at the University of Cambridge was a dream come true.

I still marvel at simple chemical reactions you can play about with at home - like the surprise volcanic eruption of adding a few drops of vinegar to a cocktail of baking soda, washing up liquid and a few drops of red food colouring!

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?

I’ve had to ask the team for some help answering this one and they have overwhelmingly responded with my dislike of clutter and need for office feng-shui! I’ve always been an advocate of the clear desk policy – for me it’s clear desk, clear mind. Certainly no cuddly toys and I just can’t resist chucking out left over papers, returning dirty mugs to the kitchen, or even rearranging pieces of office furniture – a mild to medium case of OCD!

We’ve recently relocated to newly refurbished offices in the heart of Wimbledon and thought long and hard about how to create an environment which encourages flexible working and collaboration. I want people to be able to switch desks to work more closely with different team members on shared projects, or jump into my office for a meeting or a call without it feeling like it’s my den. I’m not unreasonable - if the team want to hoard junk or collect teddies, they’re more than welcome to do that at home! 

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

Our vision is to be the finance provider of choice to specialist UK retailers and clearly contribute towards the long-term track record of our group.  I’m constantly overwhelmed by the passion in the team to help our retailers unlock growth, and with this talent and the quality of the proposition we’ve crafted, I’m confident that we’ll achieve this vision.

Taking a step back, in just three years, Close Brothers Retail Finance has gone from scratch to helping over 700 retailers, serving over 150,000 customers and generating a NPS score of +71,  so we really do believe the sky is the limit.

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

First off, the best piece of advice is to make sure it’s something you’re passionate about - if you’re not passionate about the problem you are trying to solve, how can you expect others to be?

Secondly, you need to invest time in designing and crafting your proposition and be really clear about what you are offering and to whom. Understanding how your proposition differs from your competitors and alternatives already in the marketplace is crucial.

The final piece of the jigsaw is building a talented team who embrace the passion and enthusiasm for your offering, to maximise the chances of achieving your ambitions.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?

A great question to end with and one close to my heart, as I spend a lot of time volunteering with young people outside of work, trying to help them fulfil their potential in their education and careers. So what have I told them are these three main things I wish I’d known at the start:

  • The power of a positive mental attitude – a positive attitude contributes to teamwork, resilience, innovation and entrepreneurship, to list just a few. These are so invaluable, particularly when things get tough and is something that I believe we can all control. Avoid the fun sponges and remember there are many ways from A to B, so why not have the most laughs possible on that journey – relying on encouragement rather than criticism.
  • The benefit of having balance – at various times I’ve learnt the hard way that your whole life can’t all be about work or your career, and to remain passionate and productive you have to switch off at certain points. Finding work-life balance and sustaining interests outside of work is much easier said than done. For me that now means always family first, and of course this is where running and volunteering comes in; helping me gain perspective, a broader sense of purpose and to unwind.
  • The choice of confidence – I often say to students I meet that I may now be the MD of a multi-award winning business, but ultimately I am still the same redhead super-nerd that I was when I was at school. The only difference is I now have the self-confidence to embrace those characteristics (to be honest at this stage I’m just grateful to still have hair!). My advice is to choose to be confident, take every chance you encounter and face your fears head on; be that trying out new ideas or putting yourself forward for exciting roles or projects.