The Big Interview: Coutts chief executive Peter Flavel

Peter Flavel is the chief executive of wealth manager and private bank Coutts, which is launching in Scotland.

It says the move means it will now be “far more convenient” for Scottish clients to access its broader private banking offering, including multi-currency debit cards and flexible lending.

Coutts can indeed thank a Scot for bringing it to life, with John Campbell of Lundie in the spring of 1692 setting up business as a goldsmith-banker at the sign of The Three Crowns on London’s Strand.

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The organisation – famously The Queen’s Bank – is now part of the commercial and private banking division of Royal Bank of Scotland.

'Our vision is to be the best wealth manager in Scotland,' says Mr Flavel - who has more than 30 years' experience in financial services. Picture: Ian Georgeson.'Our vision is to be the best wealth manager in Scotland,' says Mr Flavel - who has more than 30 years' experience in financial services. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
'Our vision is to be the best wealth manager in Scotland,' says Mr Flavel - who has more than 30 years' experience in financial services. Picture: Ian Georgeson.

Australian-born Mr Flavel joined Coutts as CEO in 2016, having previously led JP Morgan Private Wealth Management in Asia Pacific based in Singapore. He also spent nine years with Standard Chartered in Asia and founded its global private bank in 2006.

He has been credited with making Coutts’ branding and image “more warm and modern”; recent milestones for the lender have included obtaining B Corp status, meaning it has been deemed to balance purpose and profit.

Can you explain more about the rationale behind launching in Scotland and how it taps into the lender’s strong Scottish roots?

Coutts in Scotland will provide an on-the-ground presence through a network of offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and an experienced, locally based team, led by Alisdair Dewar. In a nutshell, moving forward, it will now be far more convenient for both existing and new clients to access our services in Scotland.

The banker notes that Coutts has served many notable Scottish clients, such as Sir Walter Scott and Andrew Carnegie. Picture: Ian Georgeson.The banker notes that Coutts has served many notable Scottish clients, such as Sir Walter Scott and Andrew Carnegie. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
The banker notes that Coutts has served many notable Scottish clients, such as Sir Walter Scott and Andrew Carnegie. Picture: Ian Georgeson.

This move follows the completion of the sale of our Adam & Company investment-management business (this deal doesn’t include the Adam banking or lending business) and builds on Coutts’ Scottish roots, which date back to 1692 and three prominent Scottish families.

The Campbells founded the original goldsmith-banking shop from which the bank originated, the Middletons moved the business to banking, and the Coutts family laid the foundations of the modern bank. Coutts has also been privileged to serve many notable Scottish clients throughout its history such as Sir Walter Scott, Sir Charles Bell, John Rennie and Andrew Carnegie, and we continue to have many Scottish clients today.

To what extent does it fill the gap left by having sold Adam & Company’s investment-management business?

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Coutts is the centre of excellence for investment and asset management across NatWest Group, so we have a very strong offering with a great track record, and are proud to be able to widen our reach in Scotland.

You’ve previously mentioned that many people associate Coutts with, say, landed estates, but a big part of its business is entrepreneurs. To what extent will the latter drive your business in Scotland, which is renowned for its entrepreneurship? Which other demographics do you see as being key Scottish customers of Coutts?

Scotland is a nation that is rich in talent, with a great reputation for innovation and enterprise, and our clients have always been pioneers, disruptors, champions and change-makers; successful people at the top of their game, so that makes us a natural fit.

Enterprise has been at the heart of our business throughout our 329-year history, and we were the first private bank and wealth-manager to establish a dedicated service for entrepreneurs and business-owners.

They will continue to be a big driver as we are seeing new types of entrepreneurs with groups such as influencers, gamers and YouTubers being successful at a younger age, and more serial entrepreneurs.

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Other key clients will be in areas in which Scotland has particular strengths, such as the tech and gaming sectors. Family businesses, which are the backbone of Scotland’s economy, are another big group.

The top 100 family businesses generate £22.6 billion annually and support more than 111,000 jobs, and while they won’t have been immune to the impact of the pandemic, they will be key contributors to the recovery of the Scottish economy.

We also see our clients being those who want advice on bridging the savings gap, and environmental, social and governance (ESG). Overall, we want to appeal to a range of clients from a diversity of backgrounds and are uniquely positioned to be relevant to both traditional and new forms of wealth.

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Can you explain how the pandemic has altered Coutts’ activity, and how it has helped small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), for example collaborating with BGF (formerly known as the Business Growth Fund)......

Like any business we had to alter our activity, and develop new ways of working and supporting our clients’ needs, whether personal or commercial. The first thing we did in terms of our SME clients was to respond quickly and offer Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans (CBILs) and Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loans (CLBILS), as well as presenting clients with mortgage and loan deferments.

Supporting SMEs, and the entrepreneurs behind them, has been the heartbeat of Coutts’ business for centuries, which is why we’re very proud of the work we’re doing with BGF.

Access to funding was the number one issue identified by the Rose Review and given our key role in supporting entrepreneurs, the partnership with BGF was the logical way of addressing a major missing piece of the funding jigsaw.

Together we have developed the UK Enterprise Fund, which will see mobilisation of private client capital to provide much needed flexible growth/ scale-up capital, with a particular focus on businesses developed from diverse and under-supported parts of society such as female founders and those from under-resourced backgrounds.

You aim to help clients “achieve their goals without compromising their values”, but how does that sit alongside more negative chapters in Coutts’ history regarding, say, the 1MDB scandal, and mis-selling?

Coutts has always maintained and demonstrated the highest possible values in everything it does. It is one of the reasons clients come to us and why we have not just survived but have thrived for three centuries. I can’t comment on ongoing investigations such as 1MDB, but it is worth noting that this relates to Coutts & Co Ltd, a separate legal entity registered in Switzerland that is being wound down since its asset sale in 2016.

We are very proud of our track record in helping clients achieve their goals without compromising their values and we are also passionate about constantly measuring our own and improving them.

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Against the backdrop of COP26 taking place imminently in Glasgow, Coutts recently became the first major UK private bank and wealth manager to become B Corp certified. Can you explain the impetus behind taking this and other steps to accelerate your ESG and sustainability credentials, and how this dovetails with increasing interest from your customers in such issues?

What clients want is changing – there’s more focus now than ever on people wanting their banks or any brand they interact with to be ethical and socially responsible. I was delighted when Coutts became a certified B Corp. We did it for a few reasons: Coutts has always been a trailblazer. And we wanted to show it is possible for bigger banks and organisations to balance purpose, profit, and the planet.

Clients, colleagues and investors are increasingly interested in business sustainability plans – our certification demonstrates our commitment, gives us licence to speak to this agenda, and gives us a starting point from which we’re committed to improve as well as a transparent measure on how we’re doing.

We’re also continuing to focus on reducing the carbon-intensity of our funds – reaching a further 25 per cent reduction across all of these by end of this year; and helping our clients reduce the emissions of their homes by offering green mortgages. We don’t have a set of green funds – all of our funds are looked at through an ESG lens.

Coutts was the first bank to have a computer, and you have been driving digital innovation – how do you aim to accelerate this?

Coutts may be old, but we have a strong record of innovation and entrepreneurialism – we were the first bank to have a fully computerised accounting system and the first private bank to launch an app ten years ago. Embracing innovation has always been key to our success.

We’re a relationship bank in a digital world – that’s our strapline – and so investing in technology is important for us. We’ve launched Digital Assist, a smart, innovative means of using co-browsing technology to guide customers through their digital investment journey.

We have our Coutts 440 app, our new social networking platform, enabling Coutts clients to network with each other and Coutts leaders, for example. Our advisors have a new “digital workplace” meaning they can take their work iPads on client visits.

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We launched our first fully online Junior ISA earlier this year, and we will be relaunching our Coutts app in the next few months, offering clients a one-stop-shop for all their accounts.

What approach do you take to leadership, would you describe it as unconventional, and what is your biggest challenge? Which leaders do you admire?

Lead as you’d expect to be led. Always agree with the team the overarching and exciting objectives; and have no more than three of these. Be crystal clear about collective and individual expectations. Then be open and transparent in communicating progress widely and regularly. And listen to all views always.

Our biggest challenge is to continue to deliver digitally enabled, first-class personal service. And I admire hands-on, empathetic and humble leaders. I’m most impressed at how Bernard Looney at BP is facing into their difficult and challenging journey to net zero.

What would a successful first two years, say, of Coutts in Scotland look like?

We will be focusing on integrating our Adam & Company banking and lending business with Coutts, pending the necessary legal approvals, and making it a seamless experience for clients.

Overall, our vision is to be the best wealth manager in Scotland by bringing the best of Coutts and NatWest Group to our clients as their financial needs evolve throughout their, and their families’, lives.

We'll continue to support our clients by leveraging our key strengths: brilliant banking, flexible lending and responsible investments, all underpinned by financial advice and education to meet their personalised needs.

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