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MERJE Meets - Louise Johnston - Chief Compliance Officer and MLRO at American Express

  • Publish Date: Posted almost 4 years ago
  • Author:by Edward Manson

Introducing our second installment of MERJE Meets….where we interview senior leaders across our core markets. This allows us to discover more about their personal and professional backgrounds and what motivates them.

Here, we talk to Amex CCO Louise Johnston to find out about her experience and expertise, the challenges she has overcome and what advice she would give to others in her industry.

Louise, please would you provide a brief overview of your career and the journey which has resulted in the role you are in today?

I’m sure it’s not surprising to know that I didn’t go through school thinking I wanted to be a compliance officer but I did always have an interest in the law. Upon graduating I worked for a couple of law firms as a property conveyancer. I won’t lie, I didn’t enjoy it and I wasn’t particularly good at it. One day I went for a job interview at another firm and 10 minutes in it became apparent I was in the wrong interview. I thought I was being interviewed for a similar role to the one I had. The partner interviewing realised the same but instead of closing the meeting asked me if I’d like a change. I was delighted as I didn’t like the monotony of conveyancing but I hadn’t read financial services legislation for many years. Even then it was one module for one term at university. Despite all of this I seized the moment and called back the next day to say I was in.

It was a steep learning curve but three years in I moved to another firm in the same practice area. Then the recession hit and clients were no longer paying for external advice so I took a job at Tesco Bank to prepare their license application for their mortgage business. I stayed there for just shy of eight years, with a couple of promotions along the way.  They were great years with lots of learning involved, not solely in the compliance space but on leading teams, developing people and advising the C-suite. It’s here that I learned the importance of treating folk as you’d like to be treated and that in order to be the best compliance advisor you have to truly understand, truly the business you are advising.

I’ve been at Amex for three years now. Those years have been super interesting as the company is very different to where I’d been before. I’m on my third version of my current role and I love the fact that the opportunity exists to learn and lead more.

During the transition from Tesco Bank to Amex, my business partner and I launched Vilo Sky, a boutique diversity and inclusion consultancy. My partner Vicky is definitely the face of the business and its success is all down to her. I’m definitely the silent partner! Which to those that know me is a little unusual. However, it works as we are the yin to each other’s yang!

Can you summarise your business, its ethos/culture and what makes it stand out from your competitors?

Amex is a global brand with a splendid history from which we all continue to learn from and grow to meet our cardmembers’ needs. It is a pretty unique financial services company as our products are not only financial products but lifestyle choices for millions of people around the world. The diversity of thought derived from the bringing together of colleagues globally means we truly can have our colleagues and clients’ backs.

What would people be surprised to learn about the business?

I’m not sure Amex is that surprising. The brand is well known for being a leading service provider, not just a financial service provider. So maybe not surprising but true.

What type of qualities or attributes do you look for when building out your team?

For me it’s all about the person, what makes them get out of bed in the morning, how they like to work and their attitude to development. It’s much less about what they know or have done but about what they want to do.

I have a UK and Nordic team so hiring in those markets is very different. Equally, so is the role of compliance, despite the global platform of the business.

What are your strategy and growth plans for the next 12 months?

There is not a lot of slowing down in the pipeline of work for compliance so I have to be mindful of balancing that with the activity of the businesses we support.

How has the current landscape affected your sector/business?

Like most financial services firms, we have seen consumer behaviour change during lockdown as there is so much less to spend on or spend doing. We have been able to react quickly to help our cardmembers in these times and listen to their needs.

What advice would you give to rising talent in your industry?

Be intentional in what you want from your career. Acknowledge that it might take some time but always react well to change. It’s the only thing that is certain.

Who do you look up to in your industry?

In my industry, there are a number of leaders in Amex that are definitely on my list. Within Compliance it would be our CCO Ashok Paul and then current and past UK MDs Charlotte Duerden and Rafa Marquez. Prior to Amex, one of the supervision leadership team members at the FCA became a key sounding board for me despite the changes in her own career.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your former self?

My career has always been pretty important to me and I guess my answer would be to always have balance in your life. Love your job by all means but don’t make it the best thing in your life.

What has been your sliding doors or lightbulb moment that changed the course of your professional or personal life?

It would have to be the aforementioned happy accident of attending the wrong job interview and it ending up ultimately being the right one. If someone had told me beforehand that it was going to pan out that way, I would never have believed them.

Also, when I left Tesco Bank, I realised that maybe I trusted too easily. Without going into the details I’d say leaving but loving the time I did spend there. I quickly learned about workplace politics and how not to navigate them.

Where do you find inspiration? Which podcasts, books, social influencers, events etc do you follow or recommend to our audience?

Inspiration...good question. I guess I look to leaders that I admire like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden or my business partner Vicky. That said, I read widely and I think there is a lot to be learned from leaders you don’t admire or people whose opinions you disagree with.

I recently completed a leadership qualification in association with Duke University in the US. This opened my eyes to the benefits and lessons from multiple industries, geographies and situations.

If you could instantaneously gain a new skill what would it be?

I’d love to be able to sing.

Covid quickfire:

The guilty pleasure that has kept you sane in lockdown

Oddly knitting tea cosies has become a thing and I’m only 40-ish!

The first restaurant you’ll head to after lockdown

A place in Edinburgh called The Chop House

The one thing lockdown has made you realise you don’t actually need

I have too many pairs of shoes!

MERJE Meets is a series of interviews with some of the key leaders, board-level executives and business owners across MERJE's network. 

Thanks to Louise for her contribution and stay tuned for the next instalment...if you are a business leader and would like to contribute to our Q&A blog series going forward, then please get in touch with our PR & Marketing team at