New digital bank Atom is challenging the old order of finance. And to bring about revolution it is creating a whole new culture, as Peter Jackson discovers.
When I arrive at the new headquarters of Atom bank I fear my satnav has let me down. The building, not far from the heart of Durham City, is unlike any bank’s headquarters I’ve seen. There’s no great Palladian portico, fronted by a colonnade of imposing pillars, no highly polished brass plaque or daunting stone steps, nothing to intimidate or deter.
Rather the Rivergreen Centre’s appearance is welcoming and in harmony with the gentle greenery that surrounds it. This award-winning building was designed to be sustainable, including features such as a central `earth rammed’ wall, recycled rainwater, natural and stack ventilation and an extensive growing roof. Atom bank moved here in the earlier part of the year, having already outgrown its first premises, barely half a mile away.
Established in 2014 as a new challenger bank operating an app-based model, Atom has already grown to the point where it has 300 staff and a balance sheet of more than £500m, hence the new home.
The Rivergreen Centre reflects its new occupier in its boldness and its originality, its readiness to upset the norms. Inside, the reception area is flanked by a bustling café area full of the Atom personnel, dressed informally and chatting animatedly.
If this is banking – it’s banking with a completely different culture. And I’m here to talk to three people about that culture.
Stewart Bromley brandishes a coat hanger at me...
Atom Bank’s chief operating officer has pulled it out of a carrier bag as a prop to illustrate an important point. It’s the kind of hotel coat hanger which slots onto a ring that slides across a wardrobe pole - useless if stolen. He tells the story of how, some years ago, he stayed in a plush, highly expensive West End hotel which provided a suitably high level of service in immaculate surroundings.
“Everything was perfect, then I opened the wardrobe and this happened,’’ he recalls. “What is this?’’ He waves the hanger. “This is a stress induction device because it’s almost impossible to get these things off the hook when you’ve got your clothes in your hand. What’s the main design criteria behind this, who did they think I was? A thief! They thought I was a thief! So I stole the hanger.’’
Not what you would normally expect from a bank’s chief operating officer. But then he is most definitely not a red braces sort of banker – more a pair of baggy shorts sort of banker, which is how he is clad on this July day. It’s significant that he was one of the early key players who developed Atom’s culture.
The point of the coat hanger story is to underline the importance of a culture running right through an organisation.
“If you’re trying to deliver a customer experience, you have to do it all, you have to think about the whole end-to-end experience you are creating and you can’t leave little things to chance.’’
From the same carrier bag he later produces a pair of voluminous Y Fronts and skimpy knickers. We’ll draw a veil over that.
I ask: how do you go about developing a culture? First of all, he explains, the intent was never to be like a conventional bank, which meant adopting a values system to underpin that strategic intent, and that value system had to be more than a mere wish list.
“Most companies define a values system but most of the time it tends to be motherhood and apple pie that’s very high level and has no sense of what it means to the individuals and customer,’’ he says.
He concedes that being a startup company was a big advantage to Atom in being able to define its own values and culture and being able to recruit people from the beginning who would embrace those values, which are: respectful; pioneering; courageous; energetic; joyful; and sharing. These values were identified by looking at Atom’s target customers.
He explains: “We then looked at the psychology of the everyday progressives and their psychological cravings and, based on that, we defined a values system that we hope would appeal to them. That makes it very powerful because if you then start to hire on that value set, you start to create a symbiotic relationship between your brand, your customer base and your employee, which is a very strong system.’’
Respectful, as a value, refers to individuality and respecting people’s individuality, motivations and preferences. “Respectful for us is all about the celebration of individuality. It’s not about us, it’s about you as an individual customer and how we treat you and respect you for who you are.’’
So employees dress as they wish and customers can tailor the app to suit their own taste.
Pioneering is an Atom value which is self-explanatory. It has been one of the first banks to introduce face biometrics, the first to use a 3D animated engine to create the app experience and it currently has six patents pending.
Sharing is about collaboration and relationships and finding and making use of talent wherever it exists.
“Sharing is a verb that everybody understands and if you are prepared to share, you’re prepared to learn from others, you are prepared to help and support others, then it drives a set of behaviours that everyone understands,’’ says Bromley.
Courage for Atom, he emphasises, is nothing to do with testosterone but rather `about being prepared to stand up for what’s right’, which, given the distrust with which the traditional banks are regarded post-crash, will strike a chord. Atom, for example, does not pay cash bonuses.
“Energetic,’’ he says, moving onto the next value, “is all about pace. Darwin said survival is all about those who can adapt to change and that’s very apt in a digital world because the technology is constantly changing, customer demand and behaviour are constantly changing and unless you can move at pace across all those dimensions you are going to be left behind.’’ He points out that to become an Atom customer and set up an account in the app takes less than 10 minutes.
Finally, joyful is a value which aims to capture the excitement of the bank and its desire to put a smile on the faces of the Atom team and customers. “There’s no reason why banking has to be boring and dull. It’s about engaging people on a new level with their financial needs,’’ he says.
These values, he insists, cannot be taken in isolation but must work together to create the Atom culture. Which is where the coat hanger came in. He accepts that some people want “a traditional risk free type of bank’’ – like the Y Fronts – which is fine, but for “the digital, unique experience, built for speed and which is more exciting’’, as illustrated by the skimpy knickers, then Atom is the bank for you. Again, it’s about respecting differences.
Anne Marie-Lister is Atom bank’s head of people experience...
This role, she tells me, covers “all the people stuff’’, including recruitment and resourcing, learning and development, human resources and organisational development. “It includes our PA team and front of house team, who are part of our people experience because they help to create the Atom vibe,’’ she says. She previously worked for a power utility, as head of change and employee engagement.
“It was a completely different organisation to this, in that it’s steeped in decades of history with very traditional working practices.’’ Before that, she was in London working for the ACCA, the Association of Chartered and Certified Accountants – again a body not noted for its funky, off-the-wall way of operating. But, working on ACCA programmes overseas brought home to her the difference in people and cultures. There are many different ways of doing things. The HQ corporate stance applied to everything and everyone doesn’t always get the best results.
She explains: “I’ve experienced many different cultures and working practices in organisations, which has led me to the conclusion that many businesses tend not focus on individuality. They prescribe what their ‘staff’ need to do to be successful.
There’s no individuality in that, no freedom and no creativity. I see this as a missed opportunity in what individuals can then bring to a business.” So, when she got the chance to join Atom at an early stage, in October 2014, to help shape a new culture and a new way of doing things she jumped at the chance.
“It’s our people who are helping us shape this business and by identifying and celebrating the uniqueness and individuality in those who who come to work for us we can create something great for customers. Something that no organisation can prescribe.’’
An important tool in putting that vision into practice is the Atom Intelligence Framework, Atom’s version of a competency framework, to define the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for people within an organisation. Characteristically, Atom went about this in its own way, examining the concept of intelligence and using the theory of multiple intelligences to develop its own framework.
First is IQ. Lister explains: “This is your technical intelligence, what you need to be good at your job, your professional, technical expertise. Emotional Intelligence is EQ. Organisations don’t pay a lot of attention to this but it’s absolutely core to what we do. It’s around being self aware, understanding other people, the environment we work in and the relationships we have are key.
“OQ is ‘organisation intelligence’ . This is the glue that holds us together, the skills and knowledge which are important to all of our success.
“MQ is your `me intelligence’. This is very particular to Atom in that we want people to be themselves at work, continue to be the unique individuals they are and celebrate that. We don’t necessarily know what somebody’s ‘me intelligence’ is when they come to the organisation. It may be something that’s business related, it may be something that isn’t in an area that we’ve recruited them in, it might be that they’ve got some fantastic and unusual skill or experience that makes them who they are and we encourage people to build that into how they work here at Atom. “All of that together makes your Atom intelligence, your AQ, and everybody’s AQ is completely unique. The Intelligence Framework underpins everything that we do.” As to how this works out in practice, it starts with recruitment.
“We employ people that want to challenge the norm’.’’ she laughs. “We do lots of things differently and we like to take a different approach and challenge the approaches that are out there but we don’t change things for change’s sake.’’
It all looks, sounds and feels different. It’s certainly not like a bank, or any other business, but more like a buzzing college campus. It has, for example, a selfie wall to which anyone joining the organisation submits a contribution. “People paste them proudly on our wall a very short time after they’ve joined,’’ says Lister. “It’s a celebration, everyone downs tools, people leave meetings we gather round and celebrate the arrival of our new family members with music.’’
There is a table tennis table in the social room, a bottomless fruit bowl and an old fashioned tuck shop which operates with an honesty box and the money raised is doubled and given to charity every month.
During the bank’s health and wellness day in January, along with yoga and meditation, it brought in a petting zoo with goats and sheep in the carpark and hens, rabbits and a tortoise into the social area. “We always want to encourage people to take that time out and give themselves a bit of space,’’ she says. “Work hard, play hard.’’
So Atom has developed its own distinctive culture which informs the way it treats its employees and customers but how does it work when it meets a more conservative sector?
Maria Harris, director of residential mortgages, describes the intermediary mortgage market...
“I’ve been in intermediary mortgages for about 10 years now and it’s an amazing industry, it’s really dynamic but probably in those 10 years nothing new or innovative has happened in the industry. It’s predominantly price driven and it’s pretty traditional.
“The majority of mortgage intermediaries are still predominantly white, male, of a certain age, suit and tie and very formal and probably quite intimidating for customers, especially new generations of customers, and there’s not a huge amount of tech in the industry.’’
Not then an arena which you would think was a natural fit for Atom bank. And yet Atom’s mortgage business is booming. It only launched its first product campaign in April but, by the time of writing, it has done £500m worth of lending to more than 2,000 customers from all over the UK.
Success has partly been down to Atom’s completely digital process for the intermediary and the customer. “The intermediary can key in an application and get an offer for their customer in less than an hour. The industry average is about 16 days,’’ says Harris. “It’s a much slicker, quicker, more straightforward process.’’
The products are relatively simple with, for example, no buy-to-let and the automation keeps the overheads down and so the price is attractive. The Atom approach to business also seems to have had a positive impact in this conservative marketplace.
The bank’s business development managers (BDMs) take the Atom culture to the intermediaries and it’s proving popular.
“We’ve recruited our team for personality and values as much as for their industry knowledge,’’ says Harris. “They don’t wear suits, they go out dressed as themselves. One of my regional BDMs is based on the South Coast and will wear shorts and flip-flops on a regular basis because that is him and how he’s comfortable. He can be himself at work and take that personality out. The intermediaries absolutely love that.’’
If they are not typical business development managers, neither is Harris your common or garden mortgage industry executive.
“Look at me, I’m a bit of a maverick in my industry,’’ she says. “There aren’t many people at my level who are female and who look like me – a bit rock chick, with hair extensions and tattoos and I’m a half Spanish Geordie girl, so I am a bit of an anomaly.’’
She has certainly made an impression in the sector, having won the title of Banker of the Year in HM Treasury’s inaugural `Women in Finance’ awards over the summer, nominated by her peers in the industry.
She says: “The reason for winning the award was put down to a genuinely disruptive approach to mortgage lending, along with mentoring team members and hiring for diversity. Because of all of this we have delivered something completely unique, from scratch and luckily people took the time to write in and nominate. It was a great accolade to win. I was shortlisted against some really formidable competition and I was genuinely shocked when I won.’’
These are three different characters who, in their very diversity, represent the culture that Atom bank is creating. In the words of Stewart Bromley: “We are trying to create something different and the more different it is, the more chance we have of succeeding.’’