Sunny side up

Bob Head has heard all the jokes about the name of Prudential Insurance’s new retail banking venture, ‘egg’. Since its launch on 11 October with savings accounts, personal loans and mortgages, finance writers everywhere have rushed to bring out stories on the Pru ‘laying an egg’, ‘going to work on an egg’ and, when telephone lines jammed and queues to open accounts lengthened, ‘getting egg on its face’. The finance director’s favourite egg gag is of course the one that refers to him. ‘I am the egg head,’ he smiles.

In the rush to capture the hearts and minds of IT-literate, affluent young professionals, unusual names for financial services, it would seem, are de rigueur. First Direct’s new customer service outlet is called Octopus and we’re all familiar with HFC’s Goldfish credit card. So what is the thinking behind egg?

‘Simply to be memorable,’ says Head. ‘The established banks and building societies, all have names that bring to mind either some sad old man with whiskers from the Victorian era, or places like Westminster or Halifax. And what we are is neither.’

Like other innovators in financial services, egg is promoting itself to consumers who might want to bank over the telephone or via the Internet.

Its high-profile, high-spending TV and press campaigns show the Pru is not afraid to be seen backing a ‘trendy’ brand. But egg is aiming for a core market of 15 million people – so it also needs to attract the affluent older customers who are at, or near, retirement age.

Head has been with the project from the beginning. As FD of Prudential Banking, he was asked to come up with a totally new venture to fill the gap in the Pru’s financial services portfolio. But like First Direct, Virgin, and Tesco, new banks have to be marketing-led. They have to be distinctive brands. Egg’s distinguishing feature, says Head, is sensation. People now reject the faceless branch network approach in favour of dealing with a bank that won’t feel like a bank.

Egg will be different from both the traditional players and rival newcomers because it will treat its customers as individuals. ‘I think people have launched, making a number of promises, all of which seem to be a little bit hollow.

So the thing about egg is to launch with something which is differentiated and tangible.’

Egg has launched with a deposit account paying 8% gross interest and a flexible approach to loans and mortgages. Customers have direct 24-hour access to egg staff via the Internet or the telephone. And the bank is committed to employing 1,500 people over three years at its Derby call centre – all trained in the art of listening rather than selling.

‘You want to do the business, but you actually want a sensation on the back of it,’ says Head. ‘The products and services are really devised around simple, flexible products tailored to you as an individual. So you don’t have account numbers – you can call the account anything you want.

It could be the Bob Head Electric Guitar Account, or something of that nature. We will give you an experience that is fresh, empathetic and liberating.

‘At the same time, we will have a person who is like your personal banker. If you think back to the old Captain Mainwaring type of bank manager, all right, it’s a rather horrible quaint old image, but actually he was there in times of need; he was a named individual. And so we have a named individual who is part of a team which will know about you.’

Head trained as an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand. He joined the firm in 1979, qualified in 1982 and spent another two years working in audit and consultancy. Then in 1985, he spent nine months in Ireland working on Ireland’s biggest bankruptcy, the Insurance Corporation of Ireland.

‘It took nine months of my life, but it was exciting because I was all of 26 at the time and being held up as some sort of London market insurance expert.’ But two years later, he decided to leave practice.

He joined the Prudential’s international operation in 1988, becoming the division’s FD in 1989. He assumed more general managerial responsibilities in 1991, or as he puts it, became ‘the Pru odd-job man. He was appointed FD of Prudential Banking in 1995.

At the time, the insurer had some mortgage business, arranged through third parties, and no savings products. But over two years, the division brought the mortgages in-house, and also built up #600m-worth of mortgage business plus #1bn in deposits.

In June last year, Head was asked to come up with a wider proposition for Prudential Banking. ‘That was quite an experience. I’d read all the management books and I’ve been rationalising and selling businesses and developing strategies for the last ten years. And then suddenly you have to come up with something new from nothing,’ he says.

He likens that period to a roller coaster ride. ‘You hit highs as you break through something and you think “that’s going to fly”, and then it bombs in research and you go right to the depths of despair, and then suddenly you go shooting up and you’re elated again.’ The early weeks following egg’s launch have more than justified those efforts: 1.5 million hits on the Internet site and 150,000 telephone enquiries in two weeks – ‘an awesome response’.

Head credits his obvious enjoyment of the situation to the Pru’s community spirit. ‘I’ve always been lucky in that I’ve been in teams, or built teams, that are good to be in. I have this phrase: “go for it, go for it together, get it done and have fun.” And if you do those things, then it’s a great place to work. The Pru’s been a great experience for me. Organisations like this have a reputation for being like the civil service, all dowdy and stuffy, but that’s not my experience.’

It’s all a far cry from a promising career in practice. He enjoyed his time at C&L, but admits that staying would never have suited him (‘They never quite went for it, or went for it together …’). Instead, he looks forward to running the finance department, assessing customer profitability and marketing the egg proposition.

‘We want to be a customer-facing business and we don’t have the empires that traditional players have. So, really, there is a great role in the finance community to start getting the customer view right across the business.’

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