By Kristy Dorsey

It’s “a brilliant bank, but it’s too small”.

So says Chris Pitt, who took over as chief executive of First Direct in September 2020 and is now grappling with the goal of doubling its 1.5 million customer base within the next few years. A career marketer in the financial services sector, he was drafted in from his previous post as UK head of marketing for First Direct’s parent company, HSBC.

Headquartered in Leeds, First Direct was set up in 1989 as the UK’s first telephone-only banking service offering customers 24-hour access at a time when most bank branches opened at 9.30 in the morning and closed at 3.30 in the afternoon. Its 2,000 staff include about 600 people based out of Hamilton in Scotland, though many continue to work from home because of the pandemic.

The business in on course to add more than 100,000 customers this year, which Mr Pitt said would be the most in about 15 years. This was despite issues in the summer when there were reports of widespread difficulties getting through to the branchless bank, which moved into internet banking in 2000 and mobile banking in 2006.

Speaking two weeks ago, Mr Pitt conceded there had been problems but said they were now largely fixed. Data in the latest week showed calls were being picked up in an average of 39 seconds, versus “something like” two minutes across the whole of September.

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With fewer people out and about during the most restrictive lockdown measures, calls to First Direct fell by nearly a quarter from 550,000 per month to 425,000. As volumes began rising again from May through July, the company suffered a simultaneous increase in the number of employees leaving the operation.

“We were one of the very few businesses to recruit through the whole of the pandemic,” Mr Pitt said. “We recruited a lot of people but what happened was we took those people on in good faith, they said they wanted a career with First Direct, but a lot of them were on furlough.

“As we came out of the pandemic, as we saw a 23 per cent increase in our calls [and] we saw a significant number of people we’d recruited leave FD as they went back to their original jobs in furlough, so our ability to respond in the moment was really pretty difficult. We did struggle in June and July with our service, but our service is absolutely back up to standards.”

The company has about 200 vacancies at the moment, including 75 in Scotland, but staff numbers will not increase at the same rate as its customer growth targets. The goal is to improve commercial returns by relying on digital transactions to manage the bulk of business and keep costs under control.

Mr Pitt noted that 97% of First Direct’s transactions are now digital, and 60% of its customers never phone in any half-year period. More than three-quarters – 83% – ring up less than twice in any half-year.

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Almost two-thirds of customers are over the age of 46, a ratio that Mr Pitt wants to significantly reduce. Of the 1.5 million new customers he would like to add, three-quarters would “ideally” be in the 18 to 35 age bracket.

“We want to double the size of the business by attracting and being more attractive to younger customers,” he said. “There is no rocket science to it really as younger customers are more likely to open current accounts and also to switch their current accounts.”

As the upcoming generation will be “one of the first to be poorer than their parents”, Mr Pitt and his team are kicking around various ideas to cater to the needs of these consumers. This could include giving customers who rent their homes access to landlord-related legal services, or creating savings accounts that allow people to more quickly save up deposits to buy their own home.

“I bought my first home in Birmingham when I was 23 or 24,” he recalls.

“In the late eighties, you could buy a home based around your income. Now it is really about your wealth, so how do you allow people to have access to wealth that might be locked in with their parents or other people that they know that they can use to provide collateral if they buy a property? Those are some of the things we are going to play with.

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“I am not going to pretend that some of them are easy to do, especially the things that are most tangible, but what we do want to do is become a company that does tangibly deliver for what matters to these younger people.”

He hopes to make the first of some of these products available from the middle of next year.

Originally from London, Mr Pitt relocated to Scotland between 2010 and 2014 when he was marketing director for Tesco Bank. Although now back in England, he retains a flat in Edinburgh’s New Town. His children, aged 25 and 23, also live in the Scottish capital where the market is particularly difficult for first-time home buyers.

“They have got it tougher than other previous generations,” he said. “Access to credit, the ability to buy and own your own home – for us as a bank, it’s how do we offer more flexible solutions around delivery of credit and also allow the wealth and equity of people who can support people who want to buy a home play out.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

A stand-out country for me is India. I have been lucky enough to travel there for both business and pleasure. I love the challenge to my cultural norms and perspectives which India provides every time I visit. Of course, that’s true of many countries, but somehow India captures my imagination in a very special way.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

As a child, I don’t think I would be the CEO of a bank and never had an “ideal job”. I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior and psychology. Understanding people’s choices and why they make these was the reason I went into marketing.

What was your biggest break in business?

A big career moment for me was when I worked alongside McKinsey during my time at Marks & Spencer Financial Services. This wasn’t a big break in the traditional sense of landing a new role but it was a time when I challenged myself to be better, encouraged to do so by my highly motivated and super-bright colleagues. What I learnt from them helped me to be more focused and have greater belief in myself.

What was your worst moment in business?

My biggest challenge to date came when I found myself taking in another organisation which felt too big for me. I found myself working in an environment where I could not thrive and unable to speak out about the pressures I was facing.

Who do you most admire and why?

I’m not big on heroes – on the basis that everybody is fallible. But I admire those who, like Nelson Mandela for example, do things for the common good, and against their own best interests even when they know this can put them in danger. I believe we should take time to notice and support the heroes in our own lives; the thousands of people who challenge everyday wrongs when they have nothing to gain personally.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I am reading Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed and Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel. Listening to Glass Animals, and I am going to see them in Leeds in a couple of weeks.