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Alexis Phillips

In our latest edition of ‘MERJE Meets...’, our in-depth series where we interview business leaders across our core recruitment disciplines, we caught up with Tom Sleight, who is the CRO for LINK, which is the UK’s largest cash machine network. Here, we took the opportunity to explore Tom’s personal and professional background and what motivates him in both his current role and across his wider career.

Can you provide a brief overview of your career and the journey which has resulted in the role you hold today?

I kicked off my professional career as a corporate solicitor, working in private practice and specialising in Commercial and Regulatory Law, which proved to be an invaluable starting point. I then moved from private practice to an in-house role with a credit reference agency, initially working in the commercial contracts team, which provided me a totally fresh career perspective.

From there, I took it upon myself to develop and finely tune a dynamic new Regulatory Compliance role, given the increasing and unprecedented regulatory demands on the business. This proved to be the challenge I needed to pave the way for my big break. Not long after creating that role, it was announced that firms previously regulated by the OFT would become regulated by the FCA. This drove the need for a step change in the way the business managed its Risk and Compliance functions.

This substantial shift also provided me with the presence of mind to build a first of its kind programme of work to prepare for FCA authorisation and regulation. This innovation led to me becoming a Risk and Compliance Director and subsequently building a second line of defence. This included the creation of a series of detailed and helpful collateral which comprised a Risk Management Framework, Compliance Handbook and Compliance Monitoring Plan, all while establishing appropriate governance structures and dealing with all aspects of Regulatory Compliance.

Two-years-ago, I embarked on the next stage of my career after I moved to LINK, which had a similar requirement to evolve the then existing risk function into an independent second line of defence, something which definitely played to my strengths. LINK is regulated by the Payment Systems Regulator, the Financial Markets Infrastructure and the Bank of England and so there was an entirely different set of regulations and regulators to deal with, but fundamentally the same challenges to successfully address and overcome.

Can you summarise your business, its ethos/culture and what people may be surprised to learn about the business?

The way in which LINK is regulated means that it operates as a systemic risk manager. Our ethos and culture is all about providing a reliable service as a progessive not-for-profit organisation which is owned by our loyal members. This means that we have no sales arm or targets, which enables us to focus on providing an effective service vehicle that supports the operational resilience of the UK’s ATM network. People may be surprised to learn that for an organisation with such a wide reach and remit, we are modest in size with 35 employees.

How has the current pandemic situation affected your day-to-day role/business and growth plans? 

In terms of our ability to operate effectively, the pandemic has had limited impact which is great news. This was by design though as we have always taken pride in devising and maintaining detailed business continuity plans. Meanwhile, the technology that we use allows all staff to work remotely, from any location, provided they have access to an internet connection and a suitable device, which proved vastly helpful during lockdown restrictions. It has taken a little time to become accustomed to meetings via Microsoft Teams rather than in person. However, we cannot ignore the fact that virtual meetings have soon become part and parcel of the “new normal” and we are now considering how we will continue to use technology to reduce travel time and unnecessary expenses once back in the workplace. 

Second line monitoring and oversight has become more challenging given that we all work remotely. Again though, the technology allows us full access to shared drives, which means after an initial hiatus in Compliance oversight (to allow the first line team to focus on maintaining operations) we are now back on track. There have been some new expectations on the business as a result of the pandemic and they include increased regulatory reporting throughout lockdown and the need for ongoing risk assessments as the situation evolves.

There has of course been a wider strategic impact on LINK; lockdown has resulted in a large decline in the number of transactions at ATMs, which then impacts on our revenues. As a not-for-profit organisation, we have no growth plans in the traditional sense. We are continuing to recruit to enhance our capability and capacity, but we are aware that use of cash is reducing. Our primary role is to manage an orderly reduction in the number of ATMs to match that reduced demand for cash.

Increasingly, there is talk of the UK moving to a cashless society and this seems to be in the spotlight after COVID-19. What are your thoughts on this and its potential impact on society and how do you see LINK reacting to this potential change? 

Cash usage has dropped for a number of years now and LINK’s role remains to manage that orderly decline. The impact of COVID-19 has been to accelerate that reduction and while we are currently seeing ATM transactions slowly increase as lockdown restrictions are eased, we do not expect volumes to recover to their pre-COVID levels.

As we manage the decline, our focus is on maintaining the current geographic spread of ATMs. While we expect overall numbers of ATMs to fall as demand for cash does, we are aware that, for millions of people, cash remains a vital source of payment. Our role is therefore to ensure that access to cash remains available for all those who want and need it. In July 2018, LINK commissioned a leading independent study into “Access to Cash”. The results of that report were published in March 2019, noting that millions of people rely on cash and that if we sleepwalk into a cashless society, we risk leaving those people, many of whom are vulnerable, behind. This remains the case today and while the pace of change has increased, the fundamental challenge remains the same.

What do you consider to be the top three challenges in your specialism as a CRO today?

Certainly the pace of regulatory change and the resulting increased cost of Compliance is always a challenge. The next immediate challenge is how to safely and securely manage our return to the workplace as lockdown restrictions continue to ease. Finally, on a longer-term basis, is the challenge of addressing the strategic impact of the pandemic while maintaining a sharp focus on our other risks, none of which have gone away.

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

Try to speak to people in a language they understand. In other words, avoid jargon. To many people, Risk is either seen as an impenetrable dark art or as a means of preventing a business doing what it wants to do. In my experience, people are generally surprised that Risk can be an enabler. Few senior Risk people I have met started out their careers with aspirations of becoming a professional in this arena. Many of them started in the business and progressed through a number of different roles.

More recently, I see rising talent taking courses in Risk Management and therefore arriving steeped in theoretical expertise but with less hands on experience of how businesses operate in practice. I would therefore encourage anyone starting their career to get as close to the first line as they can, while maintaining their independence. In my experience, the better you understand the day-to-day pressures in the first line, the more chance you have of providing appropriate and useful solutions.

 Who do you look up to in your industry?

It would be unfair to name specific individuals here, but I try and learn a little from everyone I work or engage with. Some have bigger influence than others, but we are all learning, all of the time.

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

Never put off delivering bad news or starting an unpleasant or difficult task.

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

That would have to be the transition from OFT to FCA regulation for the credit reference agency I worked for. Without that development, I would likely have remained in the Legal team rather than branching off into the wonderful varied world of Risk and Risk Management.

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

Without doubt the ability to code. While I can happily use software, I have no idea how it works, and the ability to create my own programmes would be particularly useful. I have tried a number of different Risk Management software solutions over the years, yet I tend to revert to a simple spreadsheet as it never quite does what I need it to.

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

Most of the podcasts I listen to are comedic as maintaining a sense of humour is important at the best of times and critical during a crisis. I do listen to a lot of audiobooks when I am walking our dogs and while I generally prefer fiction and I am currently working my way back through many of the Dickens classics. I do enjoy non-fiction on various topics. Recent highlights include Why We Sleep (essential given the number of news articles on the impact of lockdown on sleep patterns) and Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants.

COVID-19 quick-fire:

The guilty pleasure that has kept you sane in lockdown?

Playing my guitars. I have several and they are a great way to relax.

The first restaurant you have already or will head to after lockdown?

Bistro Saigon, a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant in Ilkley, which is near where I live.

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

Face-to-face meetings.

If you need any assistance with your Risk Management recruitment requirements, please contact the team at MERJE: info@merje.com

Stay tuned to our blog for further MERJE Meets… interviews.

Thanks to Tom for his contribution.. if you enjoyed catching up with him as much as we did, do remember to stay tuned for the next instalment of “MERJE Meets…” 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 info@merje.com