In the first in our series on careers in sustainable business, University of Bath alumnus Joe Hill of FTI Consulting speaks with current MSc students Elliot Johnston and Sanum Jain about how he helps firms tackle the ethical challenges of the financial services industry.
Hi Joe, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now?
I’m a consultant in FTI Consulting's Financial Services team. We work with financial institutions of all shapes and sizes, from multinational global investment banks to small wealth management firms in London - there’s a whole spectrum.
We tend to help firms in four areas that are relevant to sustainable practices in financial services. These are: governance, financial crime (prevention rather than participation) regulation, and conduct.
Generally, we help clients to manage their regulatory risk and their reputational risk. Within the perspective of sustainability both of those are crucial, because in financial services it’s all about people’s confidence in the system. People need to have access to financial services, and they need to have confidence in those services. The industry’s lifeblood is people’s trust in these institutions that trade on their behalf.
Did your education at the University of Bath play a part in your desire to pursue a career in the sustainability-related parts of financial services performance or was that career goal something you found earlier?
Well, I studied politics and international relations at undergraduate level, and the global governance and accountability module I sat at Bath pointed me towards the space between politics and business as a place I’d like to explore professionally. When FTI came calling after I had graduated, the opportunity offered a perfect marriage of my interests. In that regard, taking part in the global governance and accountability course was important and quite pivotal in leading me toward this profession. It offered something that the rest of my Masters degree didn’t: a focus on the importance of ethical and sustainable corporate performance.
Interestingly though, now I’m in London I’ve found that sustainability is considered an essential part of financial services performance. This is partly due to the proximity of the 2008 crisis as well as the stringent regulation that is now prevalent. While I was at Bath, the reputation of the financial services industry was at its nadir, and this was an issue that was openly discussed on the course. My classmates brought a range of cultural and contextual ideas into the discussion from a sustainability perspective. Such diverse thinking has been crucial in driving sustainability up the financial services agenda, with increasing international collaboration over issues such as money-laundering and tax evasion.
You’ve mentioned the damage the financial crisis did to the financial services industry eight years ago. Is the industry still recovering from that damage? And what do you think are the biggest challenges faced by the industry now?
In a post-2008 world, there’s still a big rebuilding job to be done after faith in the industry was shattered. Financial services play an absolutely vital role in everyday lives which means the industry simply can’t afford to keep getting this stuff wrong. Opportunities in the ethical and regulatory space within the industry have opened up since the 2008 crisis and many firms have stepped up to try and rebuild faith in the industry. One of the most immediate challenges in the industry is addressing the disparity between a firm’s espoused culture and the actions of its employees. There is also the wider challenge of ensuring equal access to financial services.
Access to financial services is a sustainability issue that is not easily solved. Everybody should have access to financial services. Sadly, in reality, it can sometimes be difficult for people both in the developing world and even here in the UK to have access.
Ultimately, financial services should be available to everyone, easily accessible and act as a safeguard to ensure that our economic system works effectively. However, lots of different factors continue to play a part in the ability of financial services to achieve these goals. Things like whether people have valid documentation, which isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds, or whether regulations actually discourage banks from taking on certain individuals because they’re deemed to be riskier customers. You can end up in a situation where those on lower incomes are struggling to gain access to proper financial services, yet they are the people who would benefit the most.
How does all of this effect what you do at FTI?
While at its heart what FTI's Financial Services team does is management consulting, we know that the issues we’re working on have a wider societal importance. We know that the consequences of the City getting things wrong are pretty severe, which everyone saw play out after 2008, so it is nice to be working on something and knowing that it has a positive impact. The interesting thing about financial services, I guess, is that it had to “switch on” more quickly to the fact that operating in a way that benefits society actually goes hand in hand with being profitable, perhaps more so than in other industries. As we’ve seen with the LIBOR and PPI scandals for example, behaving badly means fines and remedial costs which can have a big impact on bottom line performance.
In terms of the systemic importance of what we do, sustainability and its importance is really integral to everybody who works here. Hopefully that will become more of a factor now because firms are judged so heavily on their sustainability credentials these days. That can only be a good thing.