Banking in the middle of nowhere

After a distinguished service in the banking and finance sector, Alan Savery is now working for the government of St Helena. He has been commissioned to set up the first commercial bank on the British overseas territory and he is looking for accountants to help run it.

St Helena is situated in what is almost the classic definition of ‘the middle of nowhere’. It is a small island about 10 by six miles in size with a population of around 4,500. It is volcanic, extremely hilly, has one main town – Jamestown – no natural or man-made harbour, and no airport.

It is situated in the middle of the South Atlantic and the only commercial way to get to St Helena is to fly to Cape Town in South Africa and from there it’s the small matter of taking a 1,500-mile boat trip, which can last up to seven days.

If that’s too long, you could always try and get yourself on to an RAF flight to the relatively nearby Ascension Island, a mere 700 miles away and the closest point of land to St Helena.

On the plus side, St Helena is classed as a tropical island, although being of the British variety, it is frequently wet and windy.

Amid this scenario, Savery has to try and establish commercial banking facilities with little help from the outside world. ‘I was asked to have a look at what would be required to have a commercial bank on the island,’ said Savery. ‘There was no interest from any international banks, it could never be financially justified, so it was decided that there was a need to set up its own operation.’

Savery was picked for this role because of his extensive experience in the banking industry. During his career, he has spent 16 years with the Bank of England working in areas such as harmonisation with the European Commission and banking supervision.

He even spent a year-and-a-half on secondment to the then Coopers & Lybrand, now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

After this long stay with the Bank of England, he became the head of financial analysis at what was then Midland Bank. When the company became the HSBC Investment bank, he moved within the company to assume responsibility for treasury and capital markets as well as regulatory reporting.

Despite a successful career, Savery was struck down with back problems and it was eventually decided that he should be offered early retirement, which he duly took. ‘It wasn’t my intention to do any paid work after I retired,’ said Savery but it seems that giving up the work bug is a little too hard for some people.

Savery then decided to register with the British Executive Service Overseas agency, a voluntary group that aims to provide organisations in developing countries and emerging economies with professional expertise.

The highly specialised knowledge he had obtained in his career was bound to prove useful in some areas, and soon the St Helena project turned up.

‘When this project came up, I seemed to be the ideal candidate available,’ Savery said. It wasn’t long before he decided that he would enjoy this project and like to take it on.

Savery may have been well suited to the task, but once he became involved it soon emerged that this project would not be a walk in the park.

Until this project is completed, the only banking facility currently on the island is a government savings bank, which offers cash services only and a limited amount of foreign exchange.

‘Almost every transaction done on the island is in cash. Very little has been done to try and tackle this. Nearly all the local residents have accounts with local stores that have to be settled in cash and consequently the turnaround on queues at the government bank is about two hours,’ said Savery.

This isn’t the first time that St Helena has tried to establish a commercial bank on the island, but previous attempts have failed because there was no approval from the Foreign Commonwealth Office. This time, however, there are positive moves to ensure that the bank can be founded.

‘When it was decided that we would have to set up our own operation, we had to define what services the bank could offer, the structure and the systems to be put in place and the legislation that would be needed to establish, regulate and monitor the bank and its activities,’ said Savery.

A Banking Act for the island has been drafted, but while there has been no objection so far to it, there has been a small stumbling block.

‘Any new legislation has to be approved by the Foreign Office. Unfortunately they don’t have the expertise to pass this act straight away and it has been handed over to the Financial Services Authority. We’re still waiting to hear from them,’ explains Savery.

The next issue with establishing a bank on the island is finding the people to staff it, which is turning out to be one of the most significant problems.

‘Because there is no commercial bank on the island, there is no-one with any banking expertise,’ said Savery. ‘Also there is very little in the way of expertise in systems and accounting. There are only three qualified accountants on the island and they are all currently employed.’

This has meant that Savery has had to extend his search for key staff to the UK, but given the potential remuneration involved and the remoteness of the island this is a difficult task. A well-paying job on the island is thought to bring in only around £4,000-£5,000 per annum.

‘Finding people has been difficult,’ admitted Savery. ‘It has to be somebody who is looking for a change and a challenge and is willing to go out there for considerably less than the going commercial rate.’

Things do seem to be falling into place however. Savery has found someone for the manager’s position, and currently has two people on the island helping to install the relevant software needed to help set up and run the bank.

Once this has been completed, all systems should be go as soon as confirmation over the legal issues are confirmed by the Foreign Office. The bank is expected to open later this year pending, of course, an accountant.

If you’re interested in helping out with projects such as this or are looking for a new challenge that doesn’t necessarily involve more money then the British Executive Service Overseas organisation could have what you need.

  • For more information, go to or call BESO on 020 7630 0624.

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