As chief executive at HSBC Scotland, Alison McGregor leads a team of 3,700 people and represents the bank at the highest levels of public life. Peter Ranscombe finds out more.
As the plane climbed higher and higher, Alison McGregor’s view just got better and better. With no sides to it, the aircraft gave the perfect vantage point to look out over St Andrews and the wider Fife coastline. And then she jumped out of the plane.
“It was amazing,” remembers McGregor, who was one of 19 women and one man who threw themselves from a skydiving aircraft as part of the Booby Birds campaign to raise money for breast cancer charities.
The jump was the brainchild of Tina Korup whose friend Christine Tulloch was diagnosed with breast cancer. Korup asked 20 high-profile Scots to take part and each ‘bird’ committed to raising £20,000. Their fundraising efforts won the backing of entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter, former First Minister Jack McConnell and pop singer Kylie Minogue, who signed a T-shirt for a charity auction. They smashed their target, raising £421,752 between them.
“Skydiving isn’t a regular thing for me,” McGregor laughs. “When I was approached to do it, my immediate reaction was ‘No, I don’t want to jump out of a plane’. My husband and my son laughed when I told them that I’d been asked to do it, which got me going a bit. But what swung it for me was the statistics around the number of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer and who die from breast cancer. I felt I didn’t have an excuse not to do it.
“So I signed up to do it and then suddenly realised I had to raise £20,000. But the great thing about the Booby Birds was that I got to meet women from all different walks of life. I don’t think I would do it again for sponsorship, because I’m not great at asking people for money, although I’ve carried on supporting fundraising through being a non-executive director at the Beatson Cancer Charity. But I would definitely do a sky dive again. Once you get over the initial tumble and get into a steady state, it was absolutely fantastic. It was scary but I’m so glad I did it.”
Leading by example is a theme that’s run throughout McGregor’s career – and has propelled her to her present role as chief executive of HSBC Scotland. Although the bank only has ten branches in Scotland, it still employs around 3,700 staff north of the Border.
As well as the 200 or so members of staff who work in the branches, the company has a First Direct customer contact centre in Hamilton, where about 600 people are employed. Along with a second site in Leeds, the Hamilton base serves clients from throughout the UK.
A further 1,000 staff work in HSBC’s main call centres in Edinburgh and Hamilton, while its information technology team in Stirling has around 350 staff. The final pieces of the jigsaw are the 800 people who work within the securities services business, which operates from sites at Edinburgh Park and Glasgow, and then the corporate and business banking teams.
“It’s about having a range of jobs and opportunities,” says McGregor. “There is a variety of functions there, but one of the things I’m passionate about is bringing the leadership together to collaborate on career opportunities for people across those functions. That’s working really well and I think it’s really important that HSBC can become a provider of quality careers in Scotland and not just jobs within single streams.
“It’s interesting – we have 1,000 branches in the UK and only ten in Scotland,” McGregor points out. “When we started building our retail business in Scotland about seven years ago, we anticipated that we would need more than ten branches. But consumer behaviour has changed since then, with more people using internet banking and mobile phone apps.”
According to figures from the Scottish Government, Scotland’s banking market continues to be dominated by Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland, which between them control about 70% of small business accounts. The chasing pack is made up of challengers including Barclays, Clydesdale, HSBC, Santander and now TSB.
What sets HSBC apart is its larger presence in the corporate banking sector. “We’ve been in corporate banking in Scotland for a number of years and we have a very high market share,” explains McGregor. “We have a significant market share among those global customers that see HSBC as a provider of global solutions – so you might have a customer that banks with us in the UK and also banks with us in 20 different countries.
The past ten years has seen us grow our business banking and commercial banking teams significantly, especially with our expansion in the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) space. The SME loan book has grown quite rapidly – 20% year-on-year – and even through the downturn we continued to see growth in that business. It’s an exciting space for us.”
Last year HSBC unveiled a £300m fund for loans to small businesses, divided equally between the East, North and West of Scotland. This year the fund has been expanded to £400m Scotland-wide, as part of an £8bn SME push throughout the UK as whole. McGregor adds. “It’s very difficult to calculate your market share accurately. But it’s fairly obvious that we have an opportunity to continue growing our business in Scotland. I’m less fixated on growing market share than I am on growing the economy. It’s about supporting businesses to support the growth of the economy.
I’m a board member of Scottish Enterprise and I’m about to step up from being deputy chair of CBI Scotland to become chair and the reason for taking on both those roles is my interest in supporting the growth of the economy.”
Speak to many small businesses in Scotland and they will tell you that they still can’t get finance at affordable rates. Yet turn to the banks and the story is about them approving more and more loans and overdrafts. McGregor recognises the issue through wearing all of her HSBC, CBI Scotland and Scottish Enterprise hats.
“From an HSBC point of view, we’re seeing growth in our SME business,” says McGregor. “I host lunches for groups of customers and I do that to give them the opportunity to feedback to me as CEO and for me to tell them about our business, as well as for them to connect with each other. The feedback I’m getting is that SME funding isn’t an issue.
“However, I know from my other roles that 13% of Scottish businesses have said they would like more funding but haven’t gone ahead and applied for it, while 12% have been offered funding but have not taken it. Over the past few years there has been a lack of confidence in some business quarters. People have been more cautious and have paid down more debt. But from a purely HSBC point-of-view and given our rate of growth, you’d be inclined to say that’s not what we’re seeing.
“What I’m hearing from our customers is that they’re feeling confident and that the economy is improving, so they’re planning to expand and grow. We’ve been running access to finance workshops in conjunction with launching our SME fund because one of the things I’ve discussed with external stakeholders is whether the lack of confidence issue is down to perception – do they think they won’t get funding if they apply for it?”
One of the ways in which McGregor believes she can help businesses to grow the economy is through stimulating exports. HSBC operates in 71 countries and part of its advertising drive has been about helping small businesses to tap overseas markets.
“It’s our network that provides the opportunity,” McGregor explains. “For example, I met with a client yesterday who is already in China but is looking to do more in China. One of his directors is out there right now, so I came away from the meeting and contacted one of our guys in Shanghai who is a specialist in our client’s area and I’ve arranged for them to meet later this week to talk about how HSBC can help them in that particular network.
“Whether a company is small or medium-to-large, it’s about understanding the journey that the company is on and what’s stopping them from getting there. Sometimes it’s uncertainty about the market, sometimes it’s uncertainty about whether people out there would actually use their product. What we do is facilitate discussions. I feel we do have a role to play in supporting companies in Scotland to connect with the territories where there are opportunities.
“At a personal level, I do that as part of my day job. So, for example, over the past four weeks, I’ve met 50 HSBC customers. The question I always ask them is ‘How can we help you outside banking?’ Sometimes that will involve introducing them to people outside the UK and sometimes it will be introducing them to people within the UK.”
Building those relationships with clients has formed a large part of McGregor’s career. After completing her banking apprenticeship with Bank of Scotland, she joined Barclays where she spent the bulk of her career, rising through the ranks to become head of corporate and commercial banking and deputy managing director in Scotland.
In between Barclays and HSBC, McGregor also spent three years with National Australia Bank as first its regional director in the North for corporate and structured finance and then as its UK divisional director for corporate structured and acquisition finance, roles that took her throughout the UK. She joined HSBC in March 2013 as director of corporate banking for the north – which included Scotland, the Midlands, the North East and North West of England, and Yorkshire – before quickly gaining the title of ‘CEO Scotland’ in preparation for the run-up to the independence referendum in September 2014.
Now her time is dedicated 100% to the role of CEO Scotland, which includes interacting with civic society, through the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament but also through business organisations like the CBI and others.
For McGregor, it all comes back to the theme of leadership, it was thrust on McGregor at an early age under tragic circumstances. “I’m from Clydebank and the plan was always for me to go to university to study accountancy but when I was 15 my father died,” she explains. “My mum and I both went out to work so we could support my two younger brothers. I was very lucky because I went to work for the Bank of Scotland at its Scotstoun branch, which was very supportive when it came to my academic career.
“I went to night school for three nights a week for the first two years and then I did my banking degree. So I got there at the same time as everyone else, just with a bit more money in my pocket and a bit more experience – not that I would recommend it. After I finished my training, the Bank of Scotland wanted to keep me in Scotstoun but I got a ‘big job’ in the city and went to work for Barclays in Glasgow.”
Whether it was going out to work to support her family from the age of 15 or jumping out of a plane for charity, McGregor has certainly mastered her leadership skills. “The role of a leader is to inspire,” she says.
“Inspirational leaders create confident followers and confident followers just do the right thing. Confident followers will put their hands up if something’s not right, confident followers will put their head above the parapet, confident followers will do the right thing for their customers. If you have confident followers then you have a less risky, more profitable, more diverse business.
In developing confident followers you are going to get people who want to be with your organisation. Over the years, I kept thinking ‘There’s something in this leadership thing’. One of my old bosses used to say to me ‘You’re doing my head in with all this talk of leadership, leadership’. I have a passion for it and he supported me to go to Harvard to do the executive leadership management programme. It was only a short course for a few weeks but it gave me time to really frame my thoughts. So I’m really passionate about the way we lead people and I see my job as being to inspire people at every level.”