Aiming high: Starling founder Anne Boden
At the stationery counter in Fortnum & Mason’s store three days before Christmas, a middle-aged woman fended off questions from customers who assumed she was a saleswoman.
What you shouldn’t know is that Anne Boden is the only woman in this country to ever start a bank, or that she tried to take a call from a Bahamas billionaire to secure £ 48 million.
On that fateful day five years ago, Boden had slipped out of their offices in Mayfair and was strolling through the ornate halls of the store on London’s Piccadilly when her cell phone rang. The news was better than she dared dream.
She had signed a financing contract for her fintech banking business Starling from Austrian-born investor Harald McPike. Boden had flown to the Bahamas earlier this year to meet him and expected to raise a maximum of £ 3 million. But after a three-day barbecue in his offices and on board his luxury yacht, he agreed to raise far more money than she had hoped or expected.
The deal allowed her to advance her vision of starting a fintech company that she says will break the mold of UK banking. The moment was all the sweeter when, just months earlier, it looked like a feud with a much younger male colleague would drive her out of the company she founded.
The story is told in excruciating, raw detail in her book, Banking On It, which is considered a cautionary story for any businesswoman who takes care of her.
60-year-old Boden and 35-year-old Tom Blomfield, former Chief Technology Officer of Starling, were an unlikely partnership from the start. The couple looked, as she says in the book, “the establishment banker and the tech guy”.
“It was interesting to see people’s assumptions about us,” she says. “In fact, I’m the technician, I’m a computer scientist. Tom is a lawyer. ‘
Amid a tense battle over funding in February 2015, Blomfield attempted to oust it in what she described as an attempted coup.
This was her shock at the turn of events. She actually considered resigning and even writing a resignation letter before realizing Blomfield wanted her to take personal responsibility for the corporate debt. At that point, she decided to regain control. Blomfield and other key members of her team were out and about, and Boden was back in first place.
“That was my low point when I had to start again,” she says. “If it had been Tom Tanya, would there have been a coup? Probably not because the culture would have been more inclusive. I didn’t expect it, I saw him as a protégé, not a rival.
Many people asked me how I did it, how I dealt with it, where I found the resilience. I almost gave up, but that wasn’t an option.
“The idea that people’s careers are a seamless success is a myth. On the surface, they seem to have perfect careers and a perfect existence, but life isn’t really like that. ‘
Boden secured a financing contract for her fintech banking business Starling from Austrian-born investor Harald McPike (see picture)
Soil bounced back and Starling now has a total of 1.7 million accounts, including nearly 1.42 million retail accounts and over 256,000 small businesses, with £ 4 billion on deposits and £ 1.5 billion in loans largely through government-sponsored programs.
The bank has raised £ 263 million from McPike and Merian Global Investors and £ 100 million from an RBS fund to encourage competition and innovation in banking.
A recent trade update said it slumped in profit and made £ 10 million on an annual basis.
“We will be profitable by the end of the year,” says Boden. “As the number of customers grows, our cost base remains the same.”
She has the idea of selling to a larger bank and instead plans to list Starling on the stock exchange. Blomfield co-founded rival Monzo, who warned that the pandemic casts “serious doubts” on his ability to continue as a going concern.
Corporate drama and yachting off the Bahamas are a far cry from Boden’s early life in Swansea. As an only child, her father was a steel worker and her mother had a job in a department store, but her business acumen was in the maternal line.
When women master technology, they tend to get to the top very quickly because they have more empathy
“My mother worked in the store, but she ran a lot of businesses, including a car rental company and a building contractor. My grandmother was a very capable woman who built a few houses and rented them for an income. My grandmother and mother were entrepreneurial. It was normal for me. ‘
Boden’s first involvement in the financial world was when she ran her school’s bank at the age of 11. She then worked for a number of conventional lenders, including Lloyds, RBS and Standard Chartered, before going freelance and leaving Irish bank AIB in 2013 to form Starling.
She chose the name because the birds are sociable, adaptable and friendly – but also like to break new ground and knock rivals out of their place. Starling works via an app on customers’ smartphones and can therefore work without the expensive legacy of branch networks and creaky old IT systems.
Boden isn’t the only woman at the forefront of her industry. Bankers have a moment. Two of the six major UK lenders – RBS and TSB – are women-led, Alison Rose and Debbie Crosbie. Does Boden believe they will make a difference?
‘Yes. The women who get these jobs are very, very good. You need to. You read what is going on in the world through a different lens. Women are not arrogant and think we know everything. ‘
Starling works via an app on customers’ smartphones and can therefore work without the expensive legacy of branch networks and creaky old IT systems
Boden supports Rose’s efforts to support women entrepreneurs, especially in the technical field.
“People invest in people with a similar mindset and background to them. In tech, the venture capitalists have usually been tech entrepreneurs and mostly men. It’s strange that people think technology is something a man does. I’ve always thought tech was pretty feminine. It’s all about math, neat structure, the beauty of the code.
“When women master technology, they rise to the top very quickly because they have more empathy.”
She believes that mainstream banks will hasten branch closings due to the pandemic.
“It’s like moving from the high street to Amazon,” she says. There is also a move away from cash and debit cards. ‘
“People use phones or mobile wallets. The question is, what happens to the vulnerable when cash is out of date? We are obliged to bring them with us. We have customers in their nineties who are very good at technology. It is a canard that people of a certain age can no longer use technology. ‘
As for negative interest rates, “no, we shouldn’t go there,” she says, adding, “The big banking systems can’t handle negative interest rates, the technology is really hard to change.”
Regarding the coronavirus, she says: “There will be no banking crisis, but there will be an employment crisis. We have to get a form of economy in which there are enough jobs in companies that are sustainable in the future. I think it will be the end of 2021-2022 for the company to recover, but the push towards digitization will make companies more efficient. ‘
She hopes the pandemic will encourage Brits to get a grip on their finances, whether they are among the lucky ones who can save during the lockdown or the less fortunate who are in trouble.
“Just start saving up a little bit at a time. I find it really sad when people have competitive spending on things they don’t need, but it’s just as sad when they’re obsessed with savings and spreadsheets. Money is there to be enjoyed. ‘
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