Jayne-Anne Gadhia: “My concern was becoming irrelevant”

Jayne-Anne Gadhia was the CEO of Virgin Money for almost 25 years. But after leading the company through its £1.7bn acquisition by Clydesdale Bank, she had to work out what came next for her career.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 25 Jul 2022

What do you do when it’s time to move on from “the big job”? Find another similarly high-profile position to calm your ego? Start your own business to have ultimate control? Try a portfolio career out for size? Or take the money and sail into the sunset on your wittily named yacht?

This was the decision that faced Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia when, as chief executive, she successfully shepherded Virgin Money through its £1.7bn acquisition by Clydesdale Bank and was then left blinking, alone on the other side.

Gadhia has a formidable CV. She’d been in the hot seat longer than any other CEO of a European bank. She co-founded the business and, after a brief spell at RBS, returned to grow it to a listed company by 2014 before securing its sale in 2018, making it the sixth-largest bank in the UK.

Her biggest triumph – and her personal career highlight – was overseeing the acquisition of bailed-out lender Northern Rock’s “good bank” from the government in 2012 for £747m. She’s also been a huge advocate for women in financial services, a rare leader who has spoken publicly about her mental health challenges and the recipient of a CBE in 2014. She’s fully earned her position as one of the UK’s most respected bankers, so early retirement – she is 60 – would have been an understandable move.

Not for Gadhia though. “I found it very difficult actually,” she says of the transition. “Virgin Money was my baby. I devoted 25 years of my life to it. I’d set it up from scratch, stayed with it and made lots of personal sacrifices. When it came time to sell the business, that was definitely the right thing to do. But as the CEO, you are right in the thick of getting the deal closed to the very, very end. Then you sort of fall out of the business and think gosh, now I need to think about myself.”

She adds: “There’s an awful lot of headhunters that give people career advice as they move into professional life. There’s not very many that give people advice on the way out. There’s a small bunch of us that are my sort of age, who’ve held senior jobs in the City and we’ve all headed to a change of job or retirement and experienced a sudden feeling of ‘gosh, life went really quickly, what do I do next and how do I do it?’”

Gadhia’s answer was to do a bit of everything. She became chair of HMRC, took up board roles at Italian bank Unicredit, the Tate and various government bodies, and, what now takes up most of her time, launched her own business Snoop.

Gadhia’s new venture

Snoop is a money-management app that uses Open Banking (where a person can grant third parties access to their bank account) to unearth savings for the user. A team at Virgin Money had been working on launching a digital bank to rival Monzo and Starling. After they were made redundant during the acquisition, they got together with Gadhia and reassessed their ideas. “We realised that we didn’t need to start a bank to give people a better banking experience. With Open Banking, we can use our skills to navigate people’s bank accounts, explain what their money is spent on, and help them to save money and spend it wisely,” she says.

Snoop recruited 5,000 people for its beta test. When the first lockdown hit, it was these users who pushed the company to launch the product to the broader market, to help people through the resulting financial quagmire. It was good timing – Covid-19 drove a 72% rise in the use of fintech apps in Europe, according to the deVere Group – although some predict the market is now looking less favourable for fast-growth tech firms.

Since launch, Snoop has seen customer growth in excess of expectations: the app has 600,000 users per month, it is expected to hit one million downloads this summer and revenues are currently 20% above plan. Now, as the cost-of-living crisis begins to bite, the company has launched a premium version of the app, “Snoop Plus”, which businesses can offer to employees – a financial wellness tool to add to benefits packages.

“Keeping staff really motivated and happy at work should feed through to financial success for the business,” she says.

The importance of being agile

The launch of Snoop has not been without its challenges. Early plans were predominantly focused on helping customers to switch energy providers to save money. When the energy crisis hit, the business had to rely on the other categories covered by the app, including mortgages, loans and media subscriptions. “In all businesses, diversification of products is key. Instead of assuming that energy would come back in six months, we concluded the only way to build a really sound business was to assume it never comes back. Then when it does, it’s all upside,” she says.

It demonstrated the importance of agility: “If you’re going to be successful, you have to be able to change course if the circumstances are no longer right for your business. That’s definitely what happened with us.”

It also proved the benefits of taking a broader view. “While the team were dealing with it day to day, one thing that’s been different for me this time around is that, as executive chair of the business rather than CEO, I’m a little more removed from it. It’s easier to say ‘don’t worry about that. You’ve done brilliantly with these other things, let’s focus on them and make them work,’” she says.

“Too much tech, not enough fin”

Gadhia is a firm believer that having a purpose is crucial to driving business success. At Virgin Money, she implemented a guiding principle that helped the bank make mutually beneficial decisions for the business and its customers.

“When people asked me why Virgin Money was sold for as much money as it was to the Clydsdale, I could never say we had better products or services, but we did have this ethos, ‘EBO’, which was to make everyone better off. It seemed to drive success because everybody from employees to shareholders got behind it,” she says.

She’s applying the same mindset at Snoop. While recruiting more customers is obviously commercially beneficial (the business makes money by referring people to new service providers or, for Snoop Plus, through corporate subscription at £3.99 a month), she is convinced the tool will make customers happier too (75% of Snoop users say it makes them feel better about their money). As Gadhia sees it, the app helps people feel calmer because they are in control of their money. She believes alignment of business purpose and customer benefit is critical.

This balance is not the case across the financial sector. Her team recently discovered that people can buy pizzas through “buy now, pay later” services. “That seems extremely surprising to me and not something I want my daughter to do,” she says. Indeed, her criticism of fintech is that “there’s often far too much tech, and not enough around fin”.

“Running financial services, currency and balance sheets takes experience and discipline that people must know and learn. We need to make sure people who are driving these brilliant innovations have also got that foundation to make sure the businesses are sustainable,” she says.

Ethics and the PPI scandal

Her ethical drive was crystalised when, at RBS pre-financial crisis, she was asked to run a number of unsecured loan businesses. These businesses only made money through the sale of the now disgraced PPI (payment protection insurance).

“I remember going to see somebody extremely senior at RBS and saying ‘these are not very good, this cannot be sustainable’. He said, ‘We all know it’s not sustainable Jayne-Anne, but we can’t be the first bank to stop doing it, because it will affect our share price.’”

She was proud that when she moved to Virgin Money, she made sure the bank never sold PPI and, as a consequence, was not involved in the later PPI scandal. But she took an important lesson from her time at RBS: “I wish I’d had the seniority to be able to do something about that and to stop something I could see was a problem. When you are looking to the future, it is as important to stop doing things as it is to start doing them.” 

Entrepreneurial mindset

Gadhia, a chartered accountant, is a rare breed of leader that made it to the top of the corporate tree but still retains an entrepreneurial mindset.

Although she won’t be drawn on the matter, this bias for action is perhaps one reason why another one of her jobs post-Virgin Money – CEO of UK and Ireland at Salesforce – was shortlived (six months), although ultimately fruitful – she walked away with the company as investors in Snoop.

Of course, running a start-up and a listed company are very different beasts. Overseeing a listed bank, in particular, is “full of pitfalls”, requiring a serious operator with deep knowledge of regulation and ensuring compliance with the rules.

But in either journey, she argues, success is found in the same place: “Entrepreneur or CEO, the two things you have to be most mindful of are your customers and your colleagues. Have you got a product that’s right for your customer? And have you got the right people for the job?”

Setting up a business the second time around

When Gadhia launched what became Virgin Money in 1994, it was “right there during the development of the internet, which was exciting”. It was only the second financial services company to offer products on the telephone (Direct Line was the first).

This might seem a world away from the heavily digitised business environment today, but Gadhia believes the principles are still the same. “You are looking for an opportunity to do something innovative that will make customers’ lives easier,” she says. Indeed, Virgin Money sold products on the phone because at the time, people had to go through brokers to buy the types of products they were selling.

The big difference, however, is launching without the name, skills and expertise of the Virgin Group. “Setting up Snoop with my own money – and I have less of it than people might expect – is financially much more challenging than I might have liked, to be honest,” she says.

Initially Gadhia put her own money in, followed by funding from friends and family, before its market-led investment rounds. The entire Series A was put in by the Paulson Group in the US “but it was never clear that was going to be the outcome, so we did lots of presentations on the way”.

For people about to embark on a similar journey, Gadhia advises that they should be ready for the fact it is all encompassing. “People will ask questions about your revenue or cost model, or your strategic intent and you really learn and grow from that and that’s something I enjoy. But it’s a hard slog, stressful, quite tiring and, in my experience, the money never comes in until the very last moment that you need it,” she says.

The future of leadership

Another difference in setting up a business now is the changing shape of leadership. “A good leader today has to be thinking about things that 10 or 20 years ago weren’t even on the agenda,” says Gadhia. She identifies diversity and technology as the two biggest challenges for leaders to wrap their heads around. “Good leaders need to understand their views on these important structural issues and manage their business accordingly. How do you create a work environment that’s welcoming of people from all sorts of different backgrounds? As we’ve seen through the financial crisis, it’s so important to avoid groupthink. And it’s important for innovation to bring in people who challenge the norm.”

Gadhia knows a thing or two about diversity, after spending five years as the HM Treasury’s Women in Finance Champion. She is now an advisor, having passed the baton to Aviva group CEO Amanda Blanc last year. While there has been significant progress since she took on the role, including commitments to put a certain number of women or people from an ethnic minority background on boards, there is still a long way to go.

“The problem I see now is that white men in particular will say, ‘I’m brilliant at diversity. I’ve got all sorts of different people around the table, and I love all of them. All I ask is that they behave like me,’” she says.

“The problem isn’t about what you look like, it’s about who you are. It’s about feeling able to bring your whole self to the boardroom table and to be listened to because you’ve got a strong view, or a different life experience, which when put together with everybody else has created something better.”

Next steps

For those working out their own next steps, Gadhia is a good example that there is life after a big executive role. She’s now settled into her portfolio career and is happy with her range of roles and responsibilities. “These things keep me very busy, keep me intellectually interested, alert and up to date with everything that’s going on,” she says. Although on any given day she’s often just as busy as she was in the executive role, she’s also enjoying the greater flexibility.

Her advice to others in a similar situation is not to jump too quickly to the next thing. “My concern was being irrelevant. I love being in the thick of business and the City. I was really concerned when I left Virgin Money that all of that would fall away, so I jumped in quickly. I probably should have had the self-confidence to say, ‘I’m just going to take a year off, enjoy some time to myself and have a think about exactly what I want to do.’”

In a nice circular moment, Gadhia points out that “oh, 100 years ago” Management Today was the first media interview she ever gave. With her carefully crafted portfolio career, including a new business to grow, it will surely not be her last. After all she is clear, insignificance is not an option.

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Gadhia on the mental toll of leadership

The people that end up in big leadership roles are inevitably full of drive, purpose and determination to make things happen. But they probably ask too much of themselves. I certainly did, and I can see that with others. You need to have a really solid team around you. That can remove a lot of pressure.

When Philip Scott got the CEO role at Norwich Union, I asked him how he was going to do such a huge job. He said: “I’ll get a team that can take the weight off me. With a bit of luck, all I have to do is steer them.” I’ve remembered that all my life because it’s a good way of trying to carry the load.

The hard thing as a CEO is making sure the environment works to support you. For me, the best time at Virgin Money was when I had an ExCo that all got along, challenged each other positively and everyone was doing their job brilliantly.

It’s also really important in big businesses to get a good chair, because the CEO role is lonely. I had six chairs throughout my time at Virgin Money and there were two that really stood out. When you work with brilliant chairs, you can share the load.

I don’t think everybody gets work/life balance right. Again, I didn’t, and I’m sure others haven’t. Working out what your priorities are and making sure you have enough time for your family is really important. I always felt best when exercising. I used to run at 5am – it made the day better and I’d sleep really well.

Everyone in these big jobs could easily fall into the trap of attending lots of dinners and evening events. I found saying no to that quite hard. You end up on a merry-go-round, not wanting to be there, but feeling you have to be there, when of course you don’t. It means you’re out late, up early and you don’t have time for family.

So prioritise the social events you attend, prioritise exercise and family, and make sure your team is both excellent, supportive of you and capable of their own jobs.

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