Bridget Rosewell

Atom bank’s new chair, Bridget Rosewell.

From Think Tank to Bank

Atom bank’s new chair, Bridget Rosewell, talks to Suzy Jackson about her career and her new role.

“Can we just… I’m sorry,” Rosewell says, fiddling with a phone cable, “but it’s just not sitting straight.” And as she twists the phone cord into submission, she wryly adds, “…and that’s everything you need to know about me!”

A few hundred miles from Atom bank’s Durham headquarters, I chat to Rosewell in its small London office, just off Oxford Street. It’s a beautiful period building, filled with modern fixtures and fittings to make it suitable for modern businesses, and by looking more coffee shop than office, it echoes Atom’s approach to banking – it’s as “unofficey” as Atom is “unbanky”.

“Right! Shoot!” Speaking of unbanky, Rosewell is not what most of us would picture as a bank chairman in our mind’s eye. Friendly and welcoming, her words are considered and meaningful, not wasted, her thought processes quite obvious as she ends many discussions by finding something new she needs to do, or speak to someone about – some more unfulfilled potential.

“I’ve been involved in Atom bank since the very beginning, before the company was first set up, and we were still talking about why this would be a good idea; to increase the number of civic institutions in the North East, and to attract serious people, and high incomes, into the region.

“I think I was one of the first NEDs [non-executive directors] to be appointed back in 2014,” she says. “I’ve seen it from the germ of an idea, into something which is now a serious bank. So, we’ve been through those germ stages – coming up with a group of people, finding Mark [Mullen, Atom’s CEO]. We’ve been through the start-up phase – getting a license, beginning to put money on the balance sheet – and now we’re moving into a more grown-up phase.

We are now definitely a bank, we have assets, we have to fulfil all of the regulatory requirements that go alongside it and we have to show that we’re capable of moving up to the next level – profitable, growing, more technology, more products… doing all of the different things that a bank will have to do. So that’s the challenge that now sits on my plate, and the executive’s plate.”

Nothing too big, then. “I think for all of the challenger banks… well, it’s challenging! The route we have decided to go down is, some people might say, the most challenging – which is to be a full-service retail and commercial bank, so savings, loans, transaction accounts – everything. And at the same time, build a balance sheet, because that’s what a bank is; it’s what they’re about.

“If you look around the landscape, I think you can see that many of the other new banks coming in are either taking a niche, or they’re taking a technology approach and really building a technology rather than a bank. We’ve tried to go right through the middle of that and build a real challenger to the bigger banks. A very small ambition, but our own.”

Atom’s founder and departing chair, Anthony Thomson, has been synonymous with the bank since its inception. Big shoes to fill? “Different shoes,” Rosewell smiles. “Not that I wear high heels, I’m usually to be found in trainers unless you can prise me out of them! Anthony was a great chair; enthusiastic, a big personality in that start-up phase and that’s what he enjoys doing.

“Me? I like climbing; I do hillwalking. This isn’t the initial battle; this is the straight slog up the slopes of being a good, serious, respected, efficient bank. So, I’ve got my sticks out, and my boots, and it’s time to get up the path we’ve set out in front of us. We’ve got to get on and do it!

“I’m looking forward to building a successful relationship with all our stakeholders; getting to know them and deepening relationships I’ve already got. I’m looking forward to supporting the executives as they develop the skills and capabilities they need to take Atom to the next level, both in terms of products and new technology.

And on the exceptionally warm reception she was given by the Atom team, Rosewell says she was amazed. “It blew my mind. I was really emotional, really choked; the positivity with which people responded to my appointment was incredible.”

But Rosewell is pretty incredible. Oxford educated, she did a degree in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), followed by a master’s degree in economics in 1976. “And I stayed on and taught for another eight years at the university.” She was a lecturer in economics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford and at Somerville College, Oxford, then a tutor in economics until 1984.

What made her take those qualifications? “It’s a very good question, I wish I could remember,” she quips. “I went to do PPE because I hadn’t done any of these subjects at school and I was fed up, I wanted something new, and this economics stuff? No idea. We hadn’t done it at school.

“And I became fascinated by these questions, about how the world works… and can you make it better? Can you improve it? Are there ways we could manage things better?”

When she finished her education, she applied to be a librarian, and was interviewed by her former tutor. “He said, ‘What are you doing here?!’ …‘it’s a job, I want a job...!’ ‘Don’t be so silly, go and do the M.Phil. in economics!’ So, I did!”

And that’s the complete story of how Rosewell went on to become a leading British economist. “It wasn’t a career plan. Don’t think I’ve ever had a career plan, really. Do what interests you and do what’s difficult. Challenge me to do something and I’m likely to say ‘oh, alright then!’ and then think, ‘what have I done?!’.”

BridgetShe remained in education for eight years. “Academic life is flexible with small children, and my then-husband was also in Oxford, so it was obvious to stay. But then I started to realise that I didn’t believe many of the things I was teaching, which is a bit of a problem. So, the assumptions that underlie the principles of economics are misleading, if not wrong: that everyone is rational, that everyone’s got the full information. There’s a whole edifice of conclusions – even now, policy results from making assumptions about how people behave, which is wrong.

“I always felt like I wanted to get to the bottom of that. I still do, and I still am.”

Those assumptions can be incorrect because they’re dated, but also because we just… know better, now. “In the late 19th century, when people started thinking ‘what is economics?’ and really doing it, choice was much more limited. Consumers were much less powerful than they are now, and there was no internet; none of that variety of choice, which does mean that you could imagine having information about all the possible products you might want to buy, which is one of the underlying assumptions of economics.

“Some of the other things were always wrong, and sort of known to be wrong – like the assumption that you only care about yourself, and not other people, which is essential to making some of the maths that they developed tractable, so you could solve the system. If you abandon that it’s much harder because the whole thing feeds back all the time, because your decisions are affected by my decisions, and mine by yours, and so on. You need much more complex mathematics to deal with that, and we didn’t have it.”

Rosewell moved into consulting. “That which I had seen of large corporate life was not attractive to me, particularly not as a woman. I didn’t fancy climbing the ‘greasy pole’, and back in the 80s the glass ceiling for women was very apparent. You knew you’d have to be at least twice as good to get half as far. So I thought, why bother? I can just set up my own business.”

She established her first company, Business Strategies, with two partners. Twelve years in, they bought her out when she felt the pangs of boredom kicking in – “I’m easily bored,” she admits – and Volterra was born.

“There was a material difference between the businesses – Business Strategies did regional economic forecasting, so it was very much around turning the handle on forecasting models. I wanted to do project-based consultancy, decision-making stuff, rather than just sell a forecast – which, in any case, was wrong. I began to have ethical problems with what I was doing. So Volterra was to be more of a think tank.”

Where did Rosewell find her entrepreneurial flair; what was the lure of running her own business? “I wanted to be in charge,” she concedes, matter-of-factly. “Yes, definitely. I wanted to be able to do the things I thought were interesting. The difficulty is, once a business creates its own momentum, it starts wanting to do things you don’t think are interesting.

“People say, ‘oh, wasn’t that very brave’, but to be honest, it never felt brave. It just felt like the best thing to do. Here was an opportunity, a market opportunity I could see, I knew how we could fill it, I thought we could sell it, and we just… did!

“It helps if you cut things into the next step. I never had the 30-year career plan, so you do what comes nearest. Take a thread and pull at it, and be willing to accept new opportunities, that’s really what it comes down to.”

Asked how she balanced the pressures of being a working mother with a burgeoning career in education, the initial answer – ‘badly, probably!’ – doesn’t show her anywhere near enough credit, for doing this in an era where it really was the exception, rather than the rule. “I don’t think it’s changed either – tie and knot and go on, as Wellington said about his campaigns – and hopefully you find everyone eventually. There weren’t many working mothers.

“There were occasions where I thought it might be nice to cut back, because I have this tendency to say yes to things, but when I thought about the consequences of stopping, somehow, I… stopped stopping!

“Interesting things came along… Atom came along!”

Two things made her get involved in Atom bank in the first place. “Firstly, it was about supporting the North East economy. As you can tell I’m not from the North East, I’m suburban South East, me, but I came up to sit on the North East Independent Economic Review in 2012 – time flies! We had a conclusion that one thing lacking in the economy was new growing businesses but particularly, not just tech firms coming from universities, but bigger institutions which would see across the whole of the region and help to provide some finance deals that were lacking in the local community.

Bridget“The other part was that I’d been sitting on boards from the late nineties, through the financial crisis, and I watched the emerging car crash and behaviours. So, another part of it was about showing how we could do banking better. More transparent, more fair, better deal for customers, not being burdened with the legacy of huge systems that had built over time and become incredibly opaque. Open banking is great news, we’re still working out how we respond to that.

“So, there’s a bit about the North East economy, and a bit about how I do banking. That’s why I got involved.”

Rosewell talks proudly and passionately about her other roles, on the infrastructure commission looking at transport links and connectivity in different parts of the UK, as well as chairing the “roads for the future” competition, which fits nicely with her role as chair of the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency.

“And in my spare time,” she says, a twinkle in her eye, “I sit in front of the television and knit. It’s very therapeutic!”

So, why did Rosewell untangle the phone cable, right at the beginning of our conversation? Not because she’s fastidious or stamping her personal authority on a situation… but simply because she saw a way to make it better, and so she felt moved to jump in and do it. I rather suspect that could be the story of her life.

Career Pride

It’s only when pressed that Rosewell can start really listing her career achievements. She opens, coyly, with: “I’m quite proud of being attacked in the House of Lords by my former industrial relations tutor.

“We were proposing the abolition of the dock labour schemes, and I’d done some analysis which supported that. There was a counter argument that the closure of the scheme would put people out of work, and I was arguing that it wouldn’t.”

Rosewell won that argument, and a few years later when she visited one of those ports and was told that the scheme’s abolition had created jobs, she was happy to find that not only was it a successful piece of analysis… “BUT IT WAS RIGHT!”

“Being asked to be on the ‘wise men’, the panel of economists who advised the Chancellor, that was great. And having the Queen pin the OBE on me, that was pretty amazing.”

“And I’m very proud of Crossrail,” she continues. “I did all the economic analysis for that at the GLA. I had to fight against the normal way of doing analysis to show why it was good value for money. So when we got the decision to go ahead, that was a good moment. You had to think hard about how you won an argument, think hard about how you go around somebody… but we won.”

As you can see, it’s winning an argument that really makes Rosewell happiest. “I’m proud of those,” she concludes.