The Virgin Banker By Jayne-Anne Gadhia
Reviewed by Melanie Tringham
Jayne-Anne Gadhia has recently been in the news after the company where she was chief executive, Virgin Money, was sold to another challenger bank, CYBG Group.
But before she got round to selling the business, she wrote a book about her experiences, of building up the company from scratch, moving to RBS, then coming back to Virgin and steering it to a stock market flotation. From the off, one gets the sense that Virgin Money, originally Virgin Direct, has very much been her baby, so the fact that she has had to leave the business she put so much energy and time into – albeit remaining as a consultant for a period of time – has added poignancy.
The book tells how she first encountered Richard Branson, who was thinking of branching out into financial services, while Mrs Gadhia was at Norwich Union. She was quite intimidated initially, but came to find Mr Branson was one of her biggest fans.
During her toughest moments, he came out on her side, backing her as chief executive and giving her the scope to make the right decisions to keep the business going.
Certainly Mrs Gadhia enjoyed the Virgin philosophy – hiring a high energy, enthusiastic workforce which endorsed the customer-focused ethos of ‘everyone’s better off’.
Mrs Gadhia developed the basic principle of keeping things simple and whether a product description could pass the ‘kitchen-table’ test.
Eventually the Virgin One account, an innovation in current account mortgages, was sold to RBS, and Mrs Gadhia went with the product to the Scottish bank. It was here that she probably made her best career move, leaving the bank before everything went pear-shaped after the disastrous ABN Amro deal.
At the time, however, it did not feel like that; Mrs Gadhia was unhappy with the macho work culture and felt she could not fit in with the bank hierarchy, although she is surprisingly complimentary about Fred Goodwin. She said: “He was a brilliant man who focused on driving shareholder value and excellent customer service.”
Her view about the failure of the bank was that “it grew too big, too fast, and as a result, management lost control”. Management started to believe its own publicity, including putting a copy of Fortune magazine, where Mr Goodwin was named the best chief executive in the world, in every bedroom at an executive conference. Ultimately, Mr Branson came to the rescue, and Mrs Gadhia relaunched Virgin Money, with the aim of turning it into a bank. She describes how she bought a small bank in Somerset, called Church House Trust (a move which became the subject of a legal dispute with Churchouse Financial Planning).
The book provides a useful insight into the genesis of Virgin Money, and how a business was built from scratch, outlining all the risks and the challenges that the team faced.