We interviewed Kevin Blake, Chief Risk Officer to find out more about his new role, career highlights and early observations of Lowell. Kevin has been working in the risk sector for a number of years and brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to his new position at Lowell.
What does your role involve and what attracted you to Lowell?
The role itself is principally to lead the Risk team who are responsible for all areas of risk, from conduct risk to information risk, from operational risk to compliance and assurance. Fundamentally it’s about supporting the business; providing oversight and advice as well as solutions which enable colleagues in the first line of defence to deliver on their objectives and thereby grow the platform for the business overall.
The key attribute which attracted me to working for Lowell was the culture of the business; even from the outside you could see it was a great environment to work in and this has been evidenced by how easily I’ve been able to move into this new role. Alongside this, the opportunity Lowell presents for the job to contribute to its UK business, but also our wider European platform is an exciting aspect.
What makes a good Chief Risk Officer?
Problems and challenges are part of everyday life. You’re going to come across issues despite all the best laid plans. Accepting the fact those things will come up is essential; but it’s how to address them and put them into some sort of perspective that’s key - ’let’s take a step back and see what we need to do to address the problem we’ve got’. The important reason for responding that way is that it encourages people to step forward and flag things that have gone wrong so you can have the opportunity of reporting those issues and putting them right. If you react badly when things go wrong, you’ll encourage a culture of people not wanting to tell you about potential risks. It’s important to ensure you set an environment where anyone can put their hand up.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career, what advice would you give yourself?
Take every opportunity as it’s presented to you and the more you put in, the more you’ll get out of a situation. Opportunities presented to you often don’t turn out the way you anticipated. For example, almost a decade ago I was approached to become the CRO for 2 of Ireland’s nationalised banks which had got into difficulty and ultimately had caused Ireland to have to go cap in hand to the European Union for a bail-out. Within months of arriving, I found myself working with the bank’s Liquidators following a Government Act of Parliament and was asked to stay on and help sell off the bank’s assets which we did over a two year period and returned over 1 Billion euros to the Irish taxpayer. Not only did I work with some great people and made some lasting friends (as you always do when times get tough) but it led me into two subsequent CRO roles and ultimately to Lowell – none of which would probably have occurred if I hadn't taken the opportunity in Ireland.
What are your key goals/focus areas for 2021?
Fundamentally it’s about making risk easier to understand and to be seen as a provider of solutions both strategically and tactically, therefore ensuring we act as an advisor and facilitator. Risk and compliance would normally be seen only as a 2nd line oversight, where we would be looking over your shoulder to make sure you're doing the right thing. I think we need to get on the front foot and be making sure we can provide the right support from the beginning. By doing this, we can make sure the business we undertake is right and we move in the direction that we believe is the right one for a regulated entity. It’s much better to be at the point of the decision than come in later on when you’re already halfway down the line and realise that’s not the route you want to take. We’re particularly focused on continually maintaining a comprehensive set of internal controls, and also building on those robust processes. Those are the pillars of a strong risk framework and once you’ve got those, you’re building the house on stone rather than on sand.
How will you work with Lowell’s clients?
My career has seen a lot of movement between the 1st and 2nd lines of defence when it comes to dealing with clients. I’ve always enjoyed client interaction which means every day is different because clients have different requirements. I’d certainly be looking to show how we’ve developed as a firm to show our approach to risk and conduct in general so I’ll be looking to be involved directly and understanding client needs, as well as shaping the firm to see how we can meet those needs. It’s also about working collectively to deliver the best possible customer outcomes. Clients have a reputational stake in how Lowell treats its customers, therefore as a business we need to assure our clients we’re doing the right thing by their customers.
What are the top risks affecting the industry at the moment?
I can’t get away from speaking about the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately. We are continuing to adjust to the effects of COVID-19, recognising the effects of how it will impact existing and future customers. The questions we’re navigating at the moment include ‘when will the government support step back?’ and ‘when will the economy begin to pick up?’ These are the sorts of issues we’re going to have to respond to and because the answers to those questions are unknown at the moment, they’re going to have to be considered risks.
Risk is about uncertainty and because the state of our economy when we come out the other side of the pandemic is unknown and forecasts are constantly changing, we need to be adequately flexible in responding to these Government decisions which will inevitably affect our customers’ ability to pay off their debt.
Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it’s important to recognise the constant threat of cyber attacks. There’s a large increase in how many people are conducting business online that weren’t before or to the extent they were before which opens them up to potential risks from cyber criminals.
In terms of broader conduct risks, an important element is to challenge ourselves as a business and always ask ‘are we doing the right thing?’ and ‘is this the best process we could undertake?’ to ensure we’re constantly looking to improve processes to benefit our clients and customers.
What memorable interactions have you had with clients or other stakeholders?
One of the most memorable clients I had was when I was Corporate Director with a former employer. We banked a Formula One racing team called Williams Grand Prix as a client and I had met the owner of that, Frank Williams, on a number of occasions. It was interesting to see how such a successful businessman who came from a very humble background had not only built up his business but maintained it in a market that was super competitive.
But the real story here is that you never know where a conversation might take you. One day I was talking with Frank and his Finance Director and they were discussing their plans to expand their factory and needed to find the right kind of facility to purchase. At the time, we had another client called Janssen Pharmaceuticals and they had a factory from which they were looking to move. Now, pharmaceutical factories are completely dust-free, clean environments which means they can’t have things like skirting boards in rooms because dust can gather there, so where the wall meets the floor has to be a smooth transition. Interestingly, this was the exact environment a Formula One racing team needed to be in to prepare vehicles for various testing. So we ended up putting a pharmaceutical company who wanted to sell a factory in touch with a Formula One racing team who wanted to buy a factory which was a very unique set of circumstances and a real win-win!
Personally, are you risk-averse?
I always look to balance risk and reward. I used to have a picture in my office of a ship and underneath it was a quote that said “a ship is safest in the harbour but that’s not what ships are for.” In other words, you can be very risk averse, say no to everything and you’ll never get anything wrong, but you’ll never get anything done either.
Tell us about your introduction to Lowell...
I was on a long notice period prior to joining Lowell and so we arranged monthly calls with the whole UK team which I was able to join so as to introduce myself, talk about my background and previous roles before actually joining the team officially. So when I joined Lowell it felt like I had been part of the team for a good while which always helps to make the transition and is a great example of the culture within the firm - which brings me back to the start of this discussion and is why I joined in the first place!