Swede talk: Interview with Anders Bouvin, CEO of Handelsbanken UK

Square Mile Magazine, August 2015. Original article, p68-70.

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“That was the big revelation: Handelsbanken really is me.”

A Swedish voice greets me as I arrive at Handelsbanken’s UK headquarters, here to guide me to the corner office. The glass and steel building near the Tower of London is undergoing refurbishments and there are no signs anywhere, so a bit of hand-holding is necessary. Or maybe this is just Handelsbanken’s standard welcome? After some time in the company of UK CEO Anders Bouvin, I’m inclined to think the personal touch may be everyday procedure.

There’s a saying at Handelsbanken: “Why not do things the other way round?” Bouvin may have an office with a showstopping view from the Shard to the Eye, but that’s the beginning and end of any kind of flashiness. Bouvin is in charge of the UK operations of this Swedish institution from 1871, which is indeed known for doing things differently. In fact, most stories about Handelsbanken UK is about everything the bank is not: no bonuses, no sales targets, no marketing, no call centres, minimum central oversight. Then there’s the fact that Handelsbanken keeps opening UK branches at a time when peers are closing them – while at the same time having delivered a higher return on equity than its average competitor for 43 years.

Bouvin is friendly and straightforward when talking about his bank, if a little no-nonsense about it: Handelsbanken’s approach isn’t really anything new – it’s just the traditional approach of putting the customer at the heart of the operation. Bouvin’s Swedish accent is underscored by the occasional phrases that mark him as a Londoner; he’s lived in the UK capital since 2007. “We used to live in Wimbledon, but we moved into the city just a couple of weeks ago,” says Bouvin, who’s in a blue-patterned shirt and tie, jacketless on this hot day. It was the commute: “It’s 21 torturous stops on the District Line here from Wimbledon. Or put it this way: 21 planned stops, but you can add another four or five!”

About one eighth of Handelsbanken UK’s 1800 people work in this building, which comprises most of the UK head office, plus the South-East regional office – those branches are the green pins on the map on the wall. My first impression of hearing two Swedish voices turns out to have been a fluke though, as Bouvin doesn’t know how many Swedish speakers are in the building: “Oh we don’t count them! Maybe … 15?” The organisation has a very strong culture, says Bouvin, so you’ll find senior people from the Nordic region in the UK: “But we consider the UK a home market, just like Sweden. Here, we operate as a British bank and compete for British customers.”

Bouvin admits it can take some explaining for people to get what Handelsbanken is about: “We don’t really fit into the norm, so to speak, when it comes to how banks operate and how they organise themselves.” But that’s mostly an issue with bankers (and journalists), as customers get it right away: “When we explain to our customers, they understand immediately. That’s obviously what counts, isn’t it? Our values are very much common sense.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 14.14.04A different kind of branch
Handelsbanken now has about 200 branches in the UK, having opened about 20 per year over the past three. “We open a branch when we find the right person to lead it. That person has to convince us that he or she shares our values.” This is the ‘Church Spire’ principle: “We don’t micromanage branches from the centre. It’s all about empowering people to operate independently within the central principles.” This approach may be unusual in itself, but even more unusual is Handelsbanken’s steady pace of opening more branches at a time when competitors are closing them. I ask Bouvin about the rationale behind this, as competitors are pushing digital services. And with the tone of a patient man who’s clearly had to explain this a few times before, the CEO explains how Handelsbanken doesn’t buy into this narrative of the death of branches:

“This is not our experience at all. Our branches break even within 18 months – that’s proper breakeven, not subsidised. Our experience is that customers appreciate branches,” says Bouvin. But there’s a catch: Handelsbanken branches don’t operate the same way as your average branch: they look more like offices than High Street banks, for one, and staff are authorised to make decisions. “You have to operate branches in a way that customers can see they offer something. If that’s not the case, then you’ll probably feel branches are going out of fashion. … If you ask whether branches are still relevant in today’s society, our belief is absolutely! If you run them in a way customers want you to.”

This is interesting, I say to Bouvin, who interjects: “Isn’t it?” – but I still prefer using an app. “So do I!” says the CEO, as he kindly puts me in my place: Handelsbanken is no slouch on digital, it’s just that the conversation tends to focus on the growing branch network because it’s unusual. “The reason Handelsbanken is growing in one of the most mature banking markets in the world, is all about service,” says Bouvin, after he’s graciously listened to me complain about the agony of getting a mortgage from a competing UK bank. “Instead of building a bank with processes customers don’t like and have to adapt to, it should be the other way around! You should build a bank around what customers want. A satisfied customer is key to financial and commercial success.”

Sceptics will be interested to hear that Handelsbanken’s group profits reached a record high in 2014, which also explains why Bouvin takes no issue with being called traditional: “Our values are traditional! Being customer-centric, cost-conscientious, prudent and having a long-term view.” Bouvin won’t share his bank’s UK market share, “because we don’t really focus on market share, we focus on satisfied customers”. It’s small, he’ll admit, but it’s growing: “And that only fills us with enthusiasm.” There are no growth targets either of course: “We don’t do fixed planning, we don’t do targeting, we don’t … oh we could talk a lot about this. It’s ridiculous, trying to guess.”

Bouvin keeps using that word – we – as his point of view is also that of Handelsbanken: “We have a very strong corporate culture. We really do sing from the same hymn sheet.” He won’t even describe himself as the boss: “I definitely wouldn’t say, in any way, that I run the bank!” He laughs. “The head office’s role is to support the branches. My role is to make sure this system works, so that we don’t inadvertently introduce mechanisms that could disrupt this intricate system, I would say.”

A job for life
Britain is Bouvin’s seventh country of residence, and he refuses to pick a favourite. Nor is he especially keen on describing traits as a Swedish thing: what’s happening here is a Handelsbanken-specific phenomenon. Like how he recently visited the Clifton branch in Bristol, where the staff always take the bus to client meetings. The CEO practices this culture of thrift also personally: “I was at a Mansion House black tie dinner a few weeks ago. I took the Tube, as you do, but I didn’t see too many black ties on the train. But at the Mansion House there was a big, big queue of black limousines. I think there are thousands of stories like this in Handelsbanken. We try to do things in a simple, low-key way.”

Bouvin speaks passionately about the Handelsbanken ethos of working in a collaborative manner, avoiding pitting staff against customers in order to achieve targets: “I think it’s natural for people to want to do a good job. It’s natural for people to want to help each other. A big part of Handelsbanken is that we try our best.” Handelsbanken was actually Bouvin’s first job, joining fresh from the University of Lund at age 25. “I had some language skills and a somewhat international background, so they put me in the international division at the head office in Stockholm,” says Bouvin, who spent the first years of his life in Zimbabwe. Upon request, he modestly lists his languages: English, French, Swedish, Danish, and he gets by in German. The fact that his first job is also likely to be his only job was a fluke, though: “After three years, I started to understand what Handelsbanken is, and the values of the bank. … I was lucky! I had actually ended up in an organisation with values which are absolutely compatible with my own. That was the big revelation: that Handelsbanken really is me.”

Bouvin (56) is married with two children: “My son is at university in London, and my daughter is going off to study in Boston.” I ask if they’re on the path to become citizens of the world too, and Bouvin counters: “Who is a citizen of the world!” He doesn’t like the description: “I’m not sure about that. I mean, I am me!” He laughs. “I support Sweden in football and hockey. But you can put me in basically any country, and I will probably enjoy myself.”

I get the distinct impression the CEO would rather not talk about his personal life, so I ask him about the football shoe sitting by his desk: “That was Henrik Larsson’s. Do you know him?” Bouvin tuts when I say no. “He’s a famous Swedish footballer who also played for Manchester United.” The shoe seems tiny. “He’s not a very tall guy. But he is good! Small feet kick the ball harder, because the force is concentrated on a smaller area.” There’s also a Swedish Dala horse, and a Queens Park Rangers banner – the CEO stops to check that I know who they are: “I’ve always been a fan of QPR. Me and my son, we go there and watch them win, every now and then. And the trophy over there,” says Bouvin, pointing to a small golden cup: “Handelsbanken UK got that for being the best bank in the group for handling customer complaints.” He nods, pleased. “We had the quickest response times and best outcomes.”

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