Profile: Sir Alan's nine years as chair of the CISI

Sir Alan Yarrow, Chartered FCSI(Hon) stepped down as CISI chairman in October. He talks through his time at the institute, how far the financial services sector has come, and his thoughts on topics of the hour, including diversity and cyber crime 
by Bethan Rees

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“I would just like to be remembered as a decent person,” says Sir Alan when asked about his legacy. A humble response, you might conclude, for a person who held the role of chair of the CISI from 2009 to 2018 while juggling multiple other roles and responsibilities – an achievement that was acknowledged when he was knighted in the 2016 New Year Honours list for services to international business, inclusion and the City of London. 

Sir Alan was Lord Mayor of the City of London from 2014 to 2015; Sheriff of the City of London from 2011 to 2012; deputy chair of the Financial Services Authority Practitioner Panel, chair of the London Investment Banking Association (now AFME) and chair of Kleinwort Benson from 2004 to 2010, and Almoner of Christ’s Hospital. He is currently chair of Turquoise Global Holdings, director at Institutional Protection Services, vice president of the Royal Mencap Society, an adviser to wealth management company James Hambro & Partners and a director of Arbuthnot Latham. That’s not the full list either. But you might be surprised to read that Sir Alan didn’t start out in finance – quite the opposite. 

Born in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, Sir Alan moved to the UK and was educated at Harrow School before moving to Paris to work in a graphic design studio in 1969. “Art, graphic design and architecture were the areas I wanted to pursue,” he says. However, his mind changed after giving it some serious thought. “An architect’s career is dependent on an economic cycle. Architects get very busy on the way up with the market, and not busy on the way down. I also wanted to become an artist, but my perception was that there was no money in being an artist unless you were exceptional, which I wasn’t.”
Sir Alan Yarrow’s inspiration:

“My great grandfather, Sir Alfred Yarrow, was an extraordinary person who was a very good engineer – he built a business from nothing to be a very large business. By the time he died, he had given the equivalent of £85m in today’s money to charitable causes, including building convalescent homes for children with tuberculosis and looking after soldiers coming out of the First World War. He was just the most extraordinary man. He was a person who believed you’ve got to create wealth before you can spend it, to help those who can’t help themselves. And that’s the ethos I’ve been brought up on.”

Sir Alan decided to read economics and French at Lancaster University, but felt he wasn’t really progressing. He says that most of his friends were in the City making their way, and so he decided to follow suit. 

He switched careers to finance, joining stockbroker Grieveson Grant in 1972, and was elected a member of the London Stock Exchange in 1978. In 1981, he went to Manchester Business School where he completed an advanced course in International Corporate Finance. He was made a partner at Grieveson Grant in 1981. Following the merger of Grieveson Grant and Kleinwort Benson, Sir Alan rose up through the ranks and was appointed to the Kleinwort Benson Group Board in 1995 (with offices located at the CISI’s current head office exact location: 20 Fenchurch St!). Dresdner Bank took over Kleinwort Benson in 1995 and he worked in various roles there, as head of equities and latterly as group vice chair and chair of the UK bank. 
Chair of the CISI BoardSir Alan joined the CISI at an interesting time for financial services. It was just after the financial crisis of 2008, so there was much to do in terms of repairing reputational damage and restoring trust in the sector. 

“When I was asked to be chair of the CISI, I didn’t say yes straight away. Having been a chair of a bank and involved in capital markets all my life, I found it quite strange that I was going to be chairing an institute that is judging people on their ethics and integrity when the reputation of the financial services sector hadn’t shown that they had led from the front,” he says. But, he accepted the task at hand – helping to repair the damage that has been done to the sector and raise the standards of ethics and integrity. 

“The biggest challenge was to get the CISI recognised for the great work it was doing and that was about getting people to acknowledge that trust, ethics and integrity are an important part of the City at a time when values had been lost and greed was prevalent. 
"It doesn’t really matter if it’s a hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit, the CISI will thrive" “It was a very small minority who misbehaved. What I love about the CISI is that it has 750 volunteers giving their time for free to help the sector solve its own problems. That is very powerful. As the chair, I was constantly learning about people’s behaviour and being surprised at how fundamentally good people are. That is encouraging. We believe in self-help and self-determination because this institution is practitioner led and practitioner owned.”

Sir Alan took over as chair in September 2009, but he wasn’t new to the institute – he originally became a CISI member in 1993 and an honorary Fellow in 2006. He succeeded Scott Dobbie FCSI(Hon) as chair. He says he “managed to reap the harvest of Scott and his team’s hard work” when the CISI was awarded a royal charter in October 2009, which was a turning point for the institute. “It was a huge achievement for the CISI. Back then, the institute was a relatively small operation, and the royal charter set it off on its international journey, building its status.”

“Recognition is important – not necessarily to the people who the institute works for, because I would hope they know the value of the CISI, but, to the people who don’t – the people with influence outside the organisation. I hope we’ve achieved that now.” 
Ten years since the crashTen years on from the financial crisis of 2008, we live and work in a climate where regulation rollout has massively shaken up financial services. But, Sir Alan doesn’t think regulation is the only solution to help repair the sector. 

“I think we are blessed by having a good governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. He understands that financial services cannot just rely on regulation to repair itself, and I think that’s the point about the CISI. We recognise that it’s not about someone coming from the outside, saying ‘you should do this, you should that’.”
How Sir Alan Yarrow likes to relax:

“There’s nothing better than immersing yourself in three or four episodes of a boxset and completely escaping from your every day. I love sitting down in front of Killing Eve or Bodyguard, with a really nice bottle of wine, and steak and chips, with my wife, and our dogs of course. Nothing gives me greater pleasure.”

Regulation can’t solve everything, says Sir Alan, as legality and morality are two separate issues. “Some people think they can do something just because it’s legal. I can show you all sorts of examples of people acting legally, but not necessarily doing the right thing. Ethics go beyond what is legal and that’s down to a person’s judgement, and this is where the CISI comes in,” he says. 

He thinks the institute can continue to help with rebuilding the reputation through “people sharing their experiences and trying to stop other people making the same mistakes”. 
How far does Sir Alan think the sector has come since 2008? “There are places that have inherited some of the behaviours that we had in the early part of the 2000s. I am a capitalist, but I believe in responsible capitalism.”
Technology threatsTechnological advances continue to bring opportunities to the financial services sector, but they also bring threats. In a speech delivered by Robin Jones, the FCA’s head of technology, at the PIFMA Financial Crime Conference in January 2018, he outlined the increasing problem. In 2017, the FCA received 69 reports of cyber attacks against financial services, versus 38 reports in 2016 and 24 in 2015. 

But how do we confront this problem? Sir Alan says: “You can’t just tackle cyber crime; it is dynamic, by definition. It’s always moving and the people who are crooked are always moving faster than the people they’re robbing. We haven’t even touched on quantum computing yet. These are huge areas of concern, but equally, I believe the vast majority of people are honest – it’s only a small percentage who cause the problem. But we need to be very diligent about cyber crime. It’s never going to be solved; it’s always going to be there.”

He explains that he thinks the biggest vulnerability is a firm’s staff. “That’s not a criticism. The management team have a duty to make sure their staff are trained properly to minimise the impact of cyber attacks on the company.”
Diversity in financial servicesSir Alan thinks the City of London is improving in terms of diversity. “However, I would challenge anybody who walks through the streets of the City of London to not feel it’s diverse,” he says. Although, he does agree that there are historic issues with diversity and there are some areas of financial services that still need to address these. 

“There is a lack of diversity in the senior echelons of businesses. If I look at our own honorary Fellows in the CISI, for example, there’s a predominance of men. But this is partly historical, and we are working on changing this,” he says.
Sir Alan Yarrow’s words to live by: 

“Robert Kennedy’s speech in 1968. He says GDP counts the cost of the produced and he goes through the tanks that have been produced by the army, television programmes that glorify violence in order to sell toys to children, but it doesn’t count the value of your family, the beauty of the countryside, the truth about poetry. ‘It measures everything except that which is worthwhile’. It’s just one of the best speeches I’ve ever read and I used it a lot in my role as Lord Mayor. It’s not just about the money; it’s also about the culture and where we live and how we look after people.”

However, Sir Alan does not agree with quotas for diversity within businesses. “I think quotas are dangerous. Also, I think it’s pretty unflattering having a quota because I believe it’s not fair on the people who made it on their own to a position – and it isn’t right for them to feel they are just a number.” Sir Alan is a proud meritocrat and doesn’t see people for their gender or race, rather their skills and talents. 

“I’ve always believed in diversity, because I think different attitudes and approaches to subjects illustrates a far better depth of response. It provides a richness and depth of quality to decision-making, which is important to business and perhaps being born abroad instils a more inclusive attitude.” 
The future of the CISIWhere does Sir Alan think the CISI will progress to in the next decade? “I think it will do extremely well. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit, the CISI will thrive. The whole concept of professionalism, focusing on ethics and integrity and making sure that we actually get out there and publicise what is good behaviour to people – that won’t change, it will continue. We have some extremely good people who will do a wonderful job. I have nothing but the greatest of hopes for the CISI.”

Sir Alan is confident that Michael Cole-Fontayn MCSI, who stepped into his shoes on 10 October 2018, will do a fantastic job as the new chair of the CISI. As someone who has been in that role for nine years, he has some words of wisdom for Michael. “Never underestimate the passion that the CISI staff feel for what they do.” 

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Published: 17 Dec 2018
  • The Review
  • Profile
  • Lord Mayor of the City of London
  • CISI chairman
  • Alan Yarrow

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