More than skin deep

24 June 2015

Inside Atom

Mark Mullen
Mark Mullen

More than skin deep

We’ve taken another step forward towards launch…we’re officially a bank

Folk who are ‘in the know’ increasingly talk as though banks can be divided into two groups, ‘traditional’ banks and ‘fintechs’. Of the two, the latter seem to be commanding most of the attention lately, with the former having been around for a long time.

The traditional banks have big balance sheets, lots of customers and multiple distribution channels (including the internet and mobile banking). They also seem to have lots of problems, like damaged reputations, high costs, ambiguous cultures, remediation provisions (compensation pots for past mis-selling), empty branches and generally indifferent customer satisfaction. But they have size on their side. They can afford to make mistakes and frankly get away with them. How many other industries do you know that can afford to lose billions of pounds in PPI mis-selling alone and stay in business? I don’t know of any.

I’ve always maintained that if there was a proven relationship between customer satisfaction and bank profitability, bank customers would be the happiest in the world. Banks and bankers certainly understand and care about money, but there’s little evidence to show that they understand or care about people (and, in particular, customers) half as much.

So we need better banks. But we also need smaller banks. Banks who won’t sit back and try to do as little as possible, or to put it another way, do what they absolutely must, not what they should. We need new banks. We need more banks. We need different banks. And we need them now.

But here’s the thing, a bank is not just a website or an app, it’s more than that. It’s technological systems (more than you can count), it’s products, it’s processes, it’s trained and skilled people, offices, regulatory requirements, legal compliance and a ton of other things besides. And it’s difficult to build a bank, in fact it’s very difficult. It’s also expensive and complicated.
So as a result lots of new companies describe themselves as fintechs and not banks. They think that what banking does is commoditised and adds no real value. They believe that the customer experience can be shaped and enhanced by building better digital front-ends. Better apps, better websites. Here at Atom we disagree. Our Chairman often reminds us that you can put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pig. I prefer using the cliché that real beauty is more than skin deep. Either ways, we agree with each other.

That’s why we’ve chosen to build a bank. Yes, it will have a beautiful and intuitive and engaging customer front-end. It will make banking easy and convenient, but it will also have better systems, better processes, better policies and better people behind it. We want it to be simple and transparent and innovative. We want it to be low cost, because price matters to people and we don’t see why in this day and age they should be paying for something they don’t use.

So we’re building a bank. We’re doing it the hard way, with a team that cares about people, not banking; who think like humans, not bankers. In the beginning we were six. Now we’re nearer one hundred. But it doesn’t matter to me if we never make 600, just as long as we build something worth building.

Our regulators have decided that we make the grade and that we are fit to hold a UK banking licence. This is a big deal for us. It allows us to continue our journey. It’s also a testament to the belief, the commitment and the sheer hard work of our people and of our partners here in the North East of England and I am enormously thankful to them for all of their efforts. They really are an outrageously brilliant team.

As ever, we have mountains of work to get through before we open our virtual doors but for now, it feels good to have come this far.

What’s next?