VSChris Pitt had an unusual start to his career in banking. In the midst of a history degree at Loughborough University in the early 1980s, the working-class boy from Upton Park, east London, found himself with a usually reserved holiday job trustworthy pensioners: managing checks worth millions of pounds.
“When I couldn’t find a job, my grandmother and one of my great-uncles found me a job as a messenger. You used to walk between banks in town with paper checks,” says the head of internet bank First Direct.
Pitt claims he was never tempted to take the money and run away. “You must remember that I am a Jesuit schoolboy. It’s not in my DNA to do that,” he smiles.
It’s that reliability that helped him rise through the ranks at HSBC, where, more than 30 years after his check forwarding years, he now runs his branchless retail bank, First Direct.
Launched in 1989 by Midland Bank, First Direct was the UK’s first telephone lender, offering a then revolutionary 24-hour service to customers accustomed to a branch network operating from 9am to 4pm only on weekdays. First Direct was bought by HSBC as part of its acquisition of Midland in 1992, and launched internet banking alongside its telephone service in 2000, more than a decade before fintechs such as Monzo, Starling and Revolut do not burst onto the scene.
Pitt’s path to the executive chair was unconventional. While bouncing between senior marketing roles at lenders such as HSBC and Tesco Bank, he gained a reputation as a steady hand before applying for the job of chief executive of First Direct in 2020 on a whim. He landed the job – which bosses had been trying to fill for a year – a week after applying, and took the helm in October of that year.
Family Married to Tracey for 29 years. Two adult sons.
Education The Campion School, Hornchurch. History degree from Loughborough University.
Pay Not disclosed.
Last holidays Widemouth Bay, Cornwall. Two weeks of walking the coastal path with his wife and puppy.
Best advice ever given Be kind.
Biggest Career Mistake The introvert’s curse – not finding my voice fast enough in new situations.
Word(s) he abuses Genius. Spot on. Story.
how he relaxes While reading. Bike. Swimming. While walking.
Kknowing how to peddle a bank’s brand will come in handy: First Direct aims to more than double its customer base to 1.5 million by 2026 after years of slow growth. This will involve appealing to a younger clientele ranging from 18 to 35, which would be a huge change given that two-thirds of its users are over 46.
First Direct has done little to attract new customers and the point is not lost on the former marketing boss.
“We’re Britain’s best unseen bank,” says Pitt. “But we are strangers. This is the problem. We need to improve on social media and tell our story to these young people.
Assuming fluctuations in the financial markets don’t sabotage his plans, that will mean promoting his savings account with at least 3.5% interest and mortgages worth 90% of the value of a house and up to six times a borrower’s salary.
But first, Pitt will have to weather the storms brewing for existing customers. Borrowers are not only grappling with the soaring cost of living, but also the market turmoil that followed the government’s disastrous mini-budget and accelerated the spike in mortgage rates.
First Direct was not among lenders to pull hundreds of mortgage products off the market amid the market meltdown, but raised interest rates in line with the market to an average of 6%.
Pitt says his team has been inundated with calls from clients worried about what the falling pound and bond prices meant for their loans and savings last month. He had to recruit staff from other parts of the business to answer thousands of questions as borrowers tried to lock in lower interest rates on their mortgages.
“We merged everything we could to make sure we could get as many people on the phone,” Pitt says.
First Direct’s finances are not separate from the HSBC group and its mortgage portfolio is integrated with the wider UK bank. However, HSBC as a whole was the UK’s sixth-largest mortgage lender at the start of the year, with a £114 billion mortgage portfolio accounting for around 7.3% of the market.
Pitt was worried about a “small number” of customers who might start falling behind on their mortgage payments, but says he was ready. “We’re trying to get ahead of the curve.”
He has already doubled the size of the team dedicated to helping First Direct’s troubled clients, either by referring them to specialists or by restructuring their debts.
As staff reach out to vulnerable borrowers, they say one of the biggest challenges is that some customers don’t self-identify. And it’s understandable: many have never faced a cost-of-living crisis that put their finances at risk.
“These people don’t recognize themselves in this space, or don’t have the skills or the resilience to think about it,” he says.
Pitt says the chaos calmed down and he’s been sleeping well since. But if the past month has proven anything, it’s that First Direct’s telephone banking service is here to stay, despite competition from digital lenders such as Monzo and the growth of online banking.
First Direct has seen a 40% reduction in phone calls over the past two years and claims that 98% of transactions are made online. “When you get into a crisis point, people tend to be vocal,” says Pitt.
“And the reason this business works is because it absolutely tries to wrap itself around people in support of what they want to do.”