Old money, new thinking

Twenty-eight years into its fourth century, Coutts is a private bank and wealth manager with serious heritage. How does it remain relevant in the age of fintech disruption? Culture, innovation and a laser focus on customers experience, Chris Tilley CA tells Kitty Finstad.

Pondering his job title at Coutts – Director of Strategic Solutions – Chris Tilley CA says, “It sounds very grand, doesn’t it?” It’s clear, though, his refreshingly down-to-earth approach to running his small team carries no ego.

Joining his team of five – which sits within the asset management division of Coutts – in 2018, Tilley focuses on private capital and equity. “Our real goal is to differentiate the bank, enabling clients to diversify their investment portfolios into private investments that are typically uncorrelated to listed markets.

It’s another way of diversifying your wealth and it’s not necessarily  that easy to access these types of deals,” he says. Of the three services that sit within his strategic solutions team, Tilley spends most of his time running the Coutts Investment Club (CIC). An innovative offering that sources proprietary off-market private investments in high-growth companies, CIC caters to Coutts’s “most experienced and financially sophisticated clients”, Tilley explains.

“It’s not for everybody and it falls into the higher risk category. But it’s about using our networks to help businesses looking to scale up, bridging that funding gap. It’s about supporting clients, entrepreneurs and SMEs across the UK.”

This laser focus on client relationships under the broader mission of growing British business is part of what makes CIC so successful. Since its 2014 launch, it has grown from going “deal to deal with a handful of clients” to a club of 300 in 2020. Tilley’s days are typically spent “talking with ambitious entrepreneurs looking to raise capital, searching for the next investment opportunity, or chatting with a really diverse mix of clients about the latest opportunity”.

CIC’s strategy is to be flexible, untied to any particular sector, instead focusing on “interesting opportunities and differentiated businesses that are fast-growing and really just need equity capital to scale to the next level”. Then there’s the human element.

Excellent management teams with creative vision are vital. “Whereas previously management may have done a friends-and-family or crowdfunding round, coming to high-net-worth investors is a great next step to bridge that gap and raise the additional capital that they need,” he says. “It’s flexible, patient capital too.”

The rewards come not just in the form of growing businesses, but also in the diversification and access to deals that Coutts, with its trusted brand and vast network, can supply for ambitious but time-poor investors. Tilley’s team has looked after deals for a range of highly innovative companies, operating in areas such as virtual reality gaming, handheld DNA diagnostics, 3D drone mapping, fertility monitoring, blood-testing diagnostics and real-time imaging for cancer surgeons.

“Although we’re sector agnostic, there is a natural focus towards tech, tech enablement and healthcare/medtech, which is obviously quite a big area at the moment,” he says. “They’re all longer-term investments which typically take time to come to fruition. Of all the companies we’ve helped, many have gone on to raise more capital at increased valuations with the business continuing to thrive and grow.”

Digital dexterity

In the age of the app, and in a sector currently defined by tech disruption and “self-serve” culture, does Coutts subscribe to putting more power in the hands of its clients? “Coutts has an amazing history, great traditions, and we don’t want to forget that,” says Tilley. “The way the world is going, we need to be modern and relevant at the same time – it’s important for us to maintain that balance. Private banking is all about being the trusted partner and adviser to clients and it’s about building those personal relationships. But those relationships do need to be supported by the digital element too – people expect it.”

Coutts has a long history of innovation. It was, Tilley points out, the first bank to use electric cash registers, the first to introduce a private banking app. “And of course we have our skyline garden at our London HQ on the Strand. We grow our own fruit and veg and we even have honeybees. In terms of technology, we have Coutts 24, which now uses voice biometrics. We have some self-serve online mortgage tools. We have Coutts Invest for clients who want self-directed investment. And then there’s Coutts Connect, which is a sort of LinkedIn for clients – a virtual meeting place and connecting platform.”

Technology that offers evidence of moving with the times and responding to client needs. So how does Coutts focus on change and progress while maintaining its culture and values? Tilley believes successfully delivering tech innovation is driven by deep customer understanding and “the right mindset”.

“As an organisation you need to be open-minded and change-ready to embrace the new and the potentially unknown. It means constantly thinking about how we can improve the client experience at every possible point. Coutts has been very good at collaborating across the organisation, encouraging all our teams to think innovatively and share their ideas.”

In his relatively short time with the bank, Tilley has seen the culture shift and evolve – with client needs as its magnetic north. “We’re really focused on deepening client insights and we’ve become very good at using their views to help design and implement journeys and experiences,” he says. “We talk to them. We ask them what they want. What they like. What they wish there was more of. The result is about executing the basics to a very high standard, excelling at service and then integrating the technology in a natural and seamless way.”

History in the making

Ask the average Briton to describe a private banking institution founded in 1692 and they’d be forgiven for picturing landed gentry, the House of Lords and multi-generational inherited wealth. All part of the story at Coutts, the eighth-oldest private bank in the world. But a more recent strand is that of banking entrepreneurs.

“We’re helping entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, buy their dream home, pass on wealth to their family or sell their business to start a new one,” Tilley says. “We’re seeing lots of younger entrepreneurs coming through – the bank’s clients today are just as likely to be millennials and bloggers or sports and entertainment stars as they are middleaged industrialists. We have had events for e-gamers in the same week as hosting events for landowners. Plus we have a whole month of events dedicated to entrepreneurs. So while people might expect generational banking – which of course we do see – we are also attracting a whole new generation of entrepreneurial individuals with self-made wealth.”

And in the stereotypically male world of finance, a big part of the Coutts culture is inclusivity and diversity of thought. The Coutts Women’s Network represents over 500 members and allies as part of its parent RBS Women Network. Tilley is, himself, a member. “The Coutts Women’s Network is focused on creating and maintaining an inclusive workplace because we want to attract and retain the best talent,” he explains. “The message is that a diverse and inclusive workforce is probably a high-performing one. So the network’s aim is to deliver the bank’s gender strategy. It’s about empowering individuals to be better professionals, better business leaders, and it’s not exclusively a network of women – it’s about engaging male colleagues as well.

“It’s ultimately about making Coutts a great place to work. The Women’s Network is just one of a number of employee-led networks. We have a diversity and inclusion council, a wellbeing team, a people council… it sounds obvious, but people spend a lot of time at work, so finding enjoyment, making it fun and a welcoming, supportive culture where you’re proud to work is really important.”

Tilley’s enthusiasm for a well-rounded, peoplefirst workplace has honest roots in his accountancy training, which, he says, taught him how to deal with the challenges faced by almost any business. “There are two critical parts to your CA qualification: the technical side of things, which builds an invaluable skillset, and the work experience [Tilley did his at EY], which teaches you how to deal with people. That combined skillset is completely transferable to any career in finance – it teaches you to be comfortable with ambiguity, with stakeholder management, with not being afraid to challenge or take yourself out of your comfort zone.

“One of the reasons I’ve loved working here is that Coutts Investment Club is so innovative for private banking. It is quite different and I’m not aware of any other private banks doing something exactly the same. We’ve got a great client base and it’s about leveraging that, using the bank’s brand and network to find those private company opportunities. I spend my day talking to entrepreneurs, passionate CEOs, founders and clients, so it doesn’t get much better.”

Chris’ career:

  • Education Accounting and Financial Management, Loughborough University
  • 2006 Joins EY and starts ICAS training
  • 2009 EY placement in Dubai as Audit Senior
  • 2009 Completes ICAS qualification and joins RBS as Senior Analyst
  • 2013 Promoted to Associate Director, Leveraged Finance at RBS
  • 2014 Becomes Director, Leveraged Finance at RBS
  • 2017 Joins Coutts, RBS’s private banking arm, as Director, Strategic Solutions Group


This article first appeared in CA magazine: https://www.camagazine.co.uk/september2020#!cover