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Data Security

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Improving poor IT security and data compliance needn’t be hard

Dr Guy Bunker, SVP of Products at data security company, Clearswift, talks to Global Banking and Finance Review about the top threats to the financial sector, GDPR and emerging technologies.

Tell us a little bit about Clearswift and its service offerings

GB: Clearswift has been in information security for 20 years and are experts in Deep Content Inspection and Adaptive Data Loss Prevention (A-DLP). We have a number of gateway products, which are installed between the organisation and the Internet, protecting email and web traffic. The gateways can be installed on-premise or in the cloud. While many of our customers manage their own installations, we are seeing an increase in customers who want our managed service, particularly those who have moved or are moving to Office 365 and realise they need better security.

What do you see as the top cybersecurity threats to the financial sector?

Dr Guy Bunker

Dr Guy Bunker

GB: Our research into top threats reveals that 50% of financial organisations see phishing emails as the biggest threat to their business. This hasn’t really changed, it is still information theft leading to fraud, denial of service and data loss. Of course, the attacks themselves are becoming increasingly sophisticated and can operate in a secondary or tertiary manner through third-party suppliers. Ransomware remains a big issue, with phishing being the easiest route in, having malware payloads embedded in innocuous looking documents.

The advent of GDPR will probably see an increase in ‘hactivists’ who will look at weaponising the regulation. This, in essence, means that people steal and expose critical information so as to generate fines for companies and/or grind businesses to a halt with spurious requests, as opposed to stealing information for ‘personal’ gain like a traditional cyber-attacker would.

What are your top tips for financial institutions to follow should they suffer a data breach?

GB: Communication and facts are key. Organisations should have a data breach plan, and should test it on a regular basis, so when an incident occurs the team dealing with the breach know what they should be doing. Getting the facts right, about what happened and who is impacted, is fundamental. We saw with the TalkTalk incident where the ‘facts’ kept changing, how that increased the reputational damage to the organisation. Within the communication plan, regular communications are required – even if there is no new news. Just informing people of what is happening ‘behind the scenes’ helps build confidence and limits reputational damage. Communications will have to be tailored to the various stakeholders – whether it is the ICO, customers, staff, suppliers, consultants or shareholders.

What impact can a data breach have on financial institutions? Is there one particular impact that should be considered more than others?

GB: Reputation is critical. People have to trust the organisation in order to put their money or financial decisions with them. A data breach will significantly impact the reputation of the company – notonly will existing clients reconsider whether to stay, but new customers will be put off from becoming a client. Within the finance industry, there is a considerable choice and in the internet age, the competition is only a click away.

GDPR is now in full effect, what do you see as the financial sector’s biggest compliance issue?

GB: Finance has always been heavily regulated, so GDPR has had less impact on policies and processes than in other sectors. However, the fines associated with failure to comply – which is based on global turnover – could be crippling. Outside of this, ensuring compliance with the consent aspects of the regulation is key. Being able to keep in touch with old customers as well as being able to market to prospects will suffer if consent is not approved. Other pieces of the regulation, such as ‘right to be forgotten’ and data portability should all have written processes around them, so people know what to do, or who to contact should a request be received.

With so many employees in banking and finance handling personal information on a daily basis, what is your advice for ensuring this does not lead to non-compliance?

GB: Compliance has always been a big issue in the finance sector, the introduction of GDPR makes a few changes, but the issues over privacy and information protection are still very much the same. Clearswift’s recent research revealed that 45% of employees have accidentally shared emails containing sensitive information so care really does need to be taken around the new ‘shared responsibility’ aspects of GDPR – especially where third-party data processors are used as well as any other suppliers or consultants who have access to the data. Ensuring that all parties who have access to critical information have adequate data protection is essential. The same is true for any data which is shared within the organisation.

Fortunately, we all, as individuals, need to trust other organisations with our personal data, so instilling the need to protect it ‘as if it was your own’ is a good approach to take. Education on information protection and GDPR needs to run from the CEO to the cleaner as well as to all suppliers and customers.

Good compliance is about people, processes and technology. Technology needs to be considered to cover any gaps in compliance, to efficiently enforce policies and processes and ultimately to keep people (both employees and customers) safe.

Last year, it was reported that bank data breaches are mostly caused by insiders. How can financial institutions prevent this from happening?

GB: Insiders have two variants, one is malicious, the others are those who make a mistake. Making mistakes, such as sending critical information to the wrong (unauthorised) person is more prevalent than the malicious insider – but the impact is the same, information will have fallen into the wrong hands. The technology to detect and protect is the same for both the malicious exfiltration and inadvertent mistakes. A defence-in-depth strategy should be applied as good practice. Network analysis and behavioural analytics are nice-to-have solutions, but a Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solution which covers both email and web (cloud) and should also cover removable media, e.g. USB stick. DLP has moved on from the traditional ‘stop and block’ approach to encompass new technologies such as Adaptive Redaction, where content which breaks policy is automatically removed as it crosses the organisation boundary – but the rest remains. Continuous communication, which is vital to the success of financial services, is therefore achieved while information is kept secure.

How do you think the introduction of new technologies into the sector, such as the automation of processes or the implementation of blockchain, will affect the risk of a data breach in financial institutions?

GB: Automation in theory removes human error, but it can introduce new threat vectors which in turn create risk. Systems operate within boundaries and, whereas people are good at spotting anomalies, systems are only just starting to be able to do this. Cyber attackers are trained to find weaknesses in all types of systems, finding and exploiting vulnerabilities and the more connected the process chain, the more opportunities there will be.

Blockchain appears to offer some transaction integrity at present but there will no doubt be a compromise which will make people rethink its use and application. It is not a silver bullet.

The use of apps for banking and investing is proving to be a growing area and offers opportunities for smaller organisations to make their mark. However, this is another area where there is increased opportunity for fraud and so the client needs further protection. There is always a trade-off between security and usability, the challenge is to know where to draw the line, protecting the client and their assets while enabling more flexibility and opportunity.

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Rising to the Challenge of the Pandemic

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For over seven decades, Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) has been the Philippines premier development financing institution, supporting inclusive growth and development in the country. As a development financial institution, DBP is ready to help address both the immediate and long-term needs of the economy. Global Banking & Finance Review spoke to DBP President and Chief Executive Officer Emmanuel G. Herbosa to find out what the bank is doing now to help the Philippines cope with pandemic and their plans for the future.Rising to the Challenge of the Pandemic 1

  1. What is the mandate of the Development Bank of the Philippines?

“DBP is wholly-owned by the Republic of the Philippines and is classified as a development bank. Its primary objective is to provide medium and long-term credit facilities for the growth and expansion of the agricultural, industrial, and public utility sectors. Alongside its deposit-taking activities, the Bank fulfills its mandate in part through on-lending Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds provided by international development agencies, and by providing commercial loans to corporations and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

DBP has proven effective in managing public funds and channeling those funds into productive loans to four priority sectors – infrastructure and logistics, MSMEs, social services, and the environment. The Bank is particularly strong in providing term loan facilities to finance projects that help spur economic growth and contribute to national development. The Bank builds strategic partnerships with industry and businesses, financial institutions, local government units, national government agencies, and non-government organizations to fulfill its development mandate to be a catalyst for nation-building.

With more than seven decades of committed advocacy as the country’s premier development financing institution, DBP has further sharpened its development focus to be the Philippines’ Infrastructure Bank. With this enhanced mandate, DBP more aggressively supports infrastructure development towards inclusive growth and a more balanced regional development for the country.”

  1. What does the “Best Corporate Bank Philippines 2020” award mean to DBP?

“It’s a very welcome affirmation of the standards that we have set for ourselves as development bankers, especially during this time of a global health emergency.

In terms of deposit performance during the first semester of 2020, DBP was the fastest growing bank (in growth rates and in absolute amount of increase) among its peers. This was due to our working hard in the present pandemic environment to service our clients’ deposit and loan requirements. Ninety percent of DBP branches remained open during the imposition of community quarantines to continue our service delivery to the transacting public. We did not just keep our branches open, our account officers remained engaged with their clients in servicing their banking transactions.

Through end-June, total deposits of DBP grew 37% year-on-year to reach US$13-Billion (PHP637-Billion) led by a 52% year-on-year increase in Term Deposits and a 20% growth in CASA. Deposits of our national accounts comprising of government-owned-and-controlled corporations (GOCCs) and large financial institutions (FIs), serviced by our team of Relationship Officers, increased by at least US$1-Billion (PHP50-Billion) from end 2019 to July 2020 and even more creditable is the 98% year-on-year growth in our private deposits that was achieved.

We are proud of the work we have done for these GOCCs and FIs amidst the pandemic as we provided to them the full range of banking services particularly for their deposits and transactions.

Of particular significance is the work we have done for the state pension fund for private employees, the Social Security System, which the Bank has assisted towards making their financial operations more efficient, such as their cash management from the physical deposit pick-up collection from their branches nationwide to their liquidity requirements in assisting the maturity profile and rates of return on their deposits to assisting them in their disbursements that they used to do via issuing of physical checks and deposit to their Members’ accounts. We have transformed this electronically via our PESONet channel; they just send us the instructions and we electronically disburse their Pensions, Loans and other Member Benefits (e.g., maternity and other medical needs) to their Members’ bank accounts or through our Fintech partners (e.g., Paymaya) and other cash disbursement outlets. We have performed these services as well for our other Corporate clients.”

  1. What role is DBP expected to play to help the Philippines cope with, or bounce back, from the pandemic?

“DBP is poised to play a more catalytic role in the socio-economic recovery efforts for the Philippines. As a development financial institution, DBP is ready to help address both the immediate and long-term needs of the economy. We will continue to act with urgency in terms of investments focused on helping critical sectors of the economy in view of the negative impact of the pandemic on businesses, employment, and livelihood. Needless to say, it is important for DBP to provide additional financing to said sectors, be it working capital and loans to stay afloat during the pandemic.

In sustaining its development lending mandate, DBP will continue to expand and enhance its credit programs to further ease access to funds and promote an environment ripe for development intervention in hard-to-reach segments and areas.

Further stepping up to the challenge, DBP will continue to work closely with other government agencies, and the private sector, to meet the demands resulting from the pandemic. The goal is to find ways to boost the economy for a systemic impact on target sectors. This may involve reviving the capital market, keeping businesses solvent and operational, financing innovations to solve crisis-related problems, and even enabling the distribution of financial aid to the most vulnerable sectors of the economy.”

  1. What has DBP accomplished to help the Philippines meet the challenges arising from this pandemic?     

“DBP continues to support the National Government in the fight against the pandemic in the country, ensuring the availability and accessibility of financial services nationwide particularly for adversely hit industries like construction, manufacturing, health care/ hospitals, education, transport and storage, among others.

To assist these businesses, the Bank granted payment moratorium of up to six months under its Rehabilitation Support Program on Severe Events or DBP RESPONSE. The moratorium is the Bank’s response to the National Government’s call to financial institutions for temporary credit relief to the pandemic businesses as mandated by Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act or Bayanihan I.

Under the Bank’s DBP RESPONSE Program, loan payment moratorium was extended to 726 borrower-accounts with outstanding principal balance (OPB) of US$2.80-Billion  (PHP134.94-Billion) or deferred amount of US$436.51-Million (PHP21.04-Billion) combined principal and interest. Also under the DBP RESPONSE, 19 borrowers were granted loan approval for new projects in the cumulative amount of US$86-Million (PHP4.147-Billion) while six borrowers were granted loan restructuring amounting to US$3.5-Million (PHP169.79-Million). We are also implementing a continued moratorium on the repayment of salary loans involving 52,490 government employees.

The Bank has also continued processing and approving applications for loans.  As of September 2020, we have processed loan releases for 1,025 enterprises, excluding 965 rollovers, in the amount of US$3.03-Billion, excluding US$7.24-Billion rollovers. While we have continued the processing of loan releases for supported industries and enterprises, we have continued as well as the processing of remittances and other financial transactions to ensure the continuous flow of goods in the country.

Further during the pandemic, DBP was also involved in the release of cash aid. The Bank assisted in the disbursement of cash assistance under the Philippine Department of Agriculture’s Rice Farmers Financial Assistance program where PHP1.48-Billion (US$21.7-Million) subsidies were distributed by the Bank through its cash pay-out partners, M Lhuillier and PayMaya, to 297,000 farmers. The Bank also facilitated the release of social amelioration funds under the Small Business Wage Subsidy program, where PHP50-Billion (US$1.03-Billion) was distributed by the Social Security System to 3.4 million employees of MSMEs who were left unemployed during the successive community quarantines, through DBP to their bank accounts and again through its cash pay-out partners.

DBP likewise encouraged investments in the National Government’s “Progreso Bonds” or the Retail Treasury Bonds Tranche 24, a five-year government-issued debt security to augment government funds for projects related to pandemic response.”

  1. Last year, you issued DBP ASEAN Sustainability Bonds. Can you tell us a little more about this issuance?

“As a development financing institution, DBP has always been at the forefront of sustainable development and environmental protection.  The DBP Sustainability bonds issuance last year affirmed our commitment to continue supporting initiatives that have an impact not only on communities but also on our environment.

We successfully raised PHP18.125-Billion or roughly US$362.5-Million from that initial tranche of our programmed PHP50-Billion or US$1.0-Billion Bond Programme. The initial tranche was aimed at financing environmental and social projects eligible under our Sustainability Finance Framework. Proceeds from the bonds have been exclusively used to fund projects that contribute to economic inclusion; environmental objectives such as climate change mitigation and adaptation, natural resource conservation, and pollution control and prevention; as well as projects that directly address or mitigate a specific social issues. In particular, 83% of the proceeds were allocated to fifteen projects in sustainable and renewable energy under the Bank’s FUSED Program, while the rest was roughly split between projects for water supply and health care under DBP’s WATER and SHIELD Programs. That bond issuance did not only provide for a sound investment but also provided an opportunity for direct investing in nation building.”

  1. We understand that DBP will be undertaking its second issuance of DBP Bonds. Why are you issuing these bonds now?

“Even before the onset of the pandemic, the Bank already planned to raise additional funds from our Bond Programme to augment our funding requirements as the Bank pushes to lend more to our priority sectors. Now with the current crisis, there is an even greater call for DBP to increase our funding base to be ready to provide much needed financing to those affected by the pandemic and for recovery efforts especially for those hit by recent natural calamities. We also believe our Bonds can be considered a safe-haven for those looking to invest during these uncertain times.

The net proceeds of the second issuance of DBP Sustainability Bonds will be used and/or allocated by the Bank to finance and/or refinance DBP’s loans to customers or its own operating activities including those in Eligible Green and Social Categories as defined in DBP’s Sustainable Financing Framework: (a) Eligible Green Categories –(i) Renewable energy, (ii) Green buildings, (iii) Clean transportation, (iv) Energy efficiency, (v) Pollution prevention and control, (vi) Sustainable water management, (vii) Eco-efficient and/or circular economy adapted products, production technologies and processes and (viii) Terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity conservation; (ix) Climate change adaptation and (b) Eligible Social Categories –(i) Affordable basic infrastructure, (ii) Access to essential services, (iii) Employment generation, (iv) Affordable housing, and (v) Socioeconomic advancement and empowerment and (vi) Food Security.

Proceeds of the fund-raising activity will further enable us to support and spearhead projects in line with the sustainability development goals and allow us to reach a wider network of stakeholders especially in the countryside. It will also take DBP “one step closer” to its target of becoming a PHP1-Trillion (US$20.8-Billion) bank by 2022.”

  1. What can we look forward to from DBP in the coming years?

“Looking ahead, DBP‘s post-pandemic interventions will be carried out through programs supportive of recovery and expansion as well as new investments to stimulate economic activity. These programs will continue to channel growth in the four priority thrusts of DBP, which are infrastructure and logistics, environment, social services, and micro, small and medium enterprises.

The policy and regulatory framework for the Philippines’ recovery is in place. A national recovery and rehabilitation strategy has already been signed into law by the National Government to address and provide for the funding needs of distressed economic sectors.

This pandemic has given us at DBP a new perspective on how our development work can still be done, and done well, despite the challenges. We stand always ready with our programs of assistance and initiatives to support the requirements of the different sectors — in consonance with the thrusts of the National Government — from boosting their readiness to pursue growth and competitiveness opportunities to reinforcing their resilience as they embark to restart, rebuild and recover from this pandemic.”

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Award-winning CIO shares insight on personal and company success

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Fred Swanepoel, Group CIO, Nedbank Limited

Fred Swanepoel, Group CIO, Nedbank Limited

Nedbank Group, one of South Africa’s largest banks, celebrates five technology-related awards from Global Banking and Finance 2020.  With a company vision of becoming the most admired financial services provider in Africa by staff, clients, and shareholders, it’s clear that Nedbank Group is well on their way. In this interview, CIO Fred Swanepoel, who was recognised as CIO of the Year South Africa, shares his journey to becoming an award-winning Information Officer as well as his personal methods, tips, and advice for those interested in IT management.

Briefly share with us your journey to becoming CIO of Nedbank Limited.

My career began at the Small Business Development Corporation, from where I later joined Nedbank in 1996. In 2004, I became the divisional director of Group Technology and Support Services. I subsequently gained experience at the highest levels of Nedbank’s technology cluster, holding divisional director positions of Finance, Risk and Compliance; Projects and Programme Management; and Group Software Services.

In November 2008, I was appointed as Group CIO and a Nedbank Group Exco member.

What’s your top tip for staying ahead in your field?

I have a passion for mentoring and sponsoring high-potential talent, accordingly, if I may, I’d like to list three:

  • Never stop learning. I believe education and continuous learning to be the bedrock of success. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to study a B. Com Honours at the University of Stellenbosch, an MBA at the University of the Witwatersrand as well as a SEPSA and AMP from Harvard Business School. But learning extends beyond formal education and training. In the prevailing fast-changing and hyper-competitive environment, leaders have had to commit to ongoing agility and learning as we pivot our strategies in response to systemic developments. In short, to remain ahead of the game, you need to keep on educating yourself.
  • There is no substitute for hard work. True passion for technology and innovation is a vital ingredient for a successful tenure in the fast-moving, highly competitive financial services technology ecosystem.
  • Developing a strong network to leverage at critical ‘moments of truth’ is important. Like any asset, this network requires nurturing and investment. Having sponsors who genuinely care about your wellbeing and success has, over time, proven to be invaluable to my career trajectory.

What are the most important functions of a CIO?

Performing a conduit role between business and IT is, in my opinion, a critical component of my role to enable coordination and synchronicity of enterprise execution efforts. Brokering of ‘trade-offs’ has increasingly become an important part of my role as we seek to navigate the prevailing volatile and uncertain competitive economy by maximising the benefits from our substantial IT investments across the various components of our business. Advancing our digital aspirations has, over the preceding years, been top of my radar, given the various benefits emanating from digitisation (revenue uplift, cost-saving, client experience uplift etc). Having ‘the correct people in the correct seats on the bus’ is incredibly important and people remain the biggest component of an effective IT value chain. Only by having the right people will any IT initiative be successful. We have experienced this firsthand with our big transformational programme, Managed Evolution, and witnessed the positive impact that having the right people leading our efforts has on execution effectiveness and operational efficiency.

What’s the most important part of your job and what advice would you give to young people interested in a career in IT management?

‘We have become educators.’

There is a digital revolution taking place. I believe that our role is to consistently educate business partners and key stakeholders about how tech can support, enable, and transform traditional operations in support of sustainable business outperformance. I have a critical role to play in brokering collaboration between the IT and business fraternities in support of accelerated execution, the adoption of digital, system rationalisation, the onboarding and leveraging of new technology deployments, etc.

For young people with a keen interest in IT I would advise the following:

  • You get out of life what you put into it: passion, pride, commitment, and heart. These cannot be taught but they are without a doubt differentiators. Doggedly pursue what you aspire towards – you are the architect of your own future.
  • Be genuine: far too often, I see people living separate personal versus professional lives. It is my considered opinion that being genuine is what will endear you to key stakeholders in this day and age.
  • Learn to become ambidextrous: survival in today’s fast-moving, highly competitive, global technology ecosystem, requires one to be able to manage high levels of complexity, various interdependencies, and various moving parts on a daily basis.
  • Pick your team well! Having a team composed of determined, self-motivated and multi-skilled players to support you in particularly difficult times, is critical.

Can you surface a recent highlight of your career?

In 2020, Nedbank has been recognised by Global Banking and Finance by winning 5 significant industry-leading technology-related awards, namely:

  • Best Banking Technology Implementation South Africa
  • Most Innovative Digital Branch Design South Africa
  • Most Innovative Retail Banking App (Nedbank Money App) South Africa
  • Best Retail Bank South Africa
  • CIO of the Year South Africa

I am humbled to have been recognised as the CIO of the year in South Africa for 2020. The performance and commitment of my diverse IT leadership team, the support from our CEO Mike Brown, the Board, my Group Exco colleagues, and our staff are the drivers behind us winning these awards.

What are the biggest trends impacting your field in the decade ahead?

  • Client experience focus – delivering leading client experiences, at an innovation cadence that exceeds that of our peer group on a relative basis is, in my opinion, what will separate the winners from the losers going forward.
  • Remote working – the enablement of staff to work effectively remotely is critical to support core business operations and the ongoing profitability of the enterprise.
  • Cybersecurity remains one of the most important trends, in an increasingly digitised ecosystem, as we have a responsibility to our clients to protect them from sophisticated cyber-related attacks, which continue to persist and grow in volume.
  • The pervasiveness of digital / Internet of Things (IoT) – with more and more automation, connected devices will dominate the industry and enable enterprises to cross barriers they have previously not been able to. Nedbank has well-defined plans in place to leverage our vast API network in support of improved client experience and feature functionality offered to our clients.

How would you describe your communication skills and how do you cope with stress?

I’d best describe my communication skills as ‘radically candid and people-centred.’

In the prevailing and tough Global environment, we, as leaders, have had to communicate with care and empathy whilst still being radically candid in the content of our communication. Balancing the sincere care we have for our people and delivering the cold hard facts is something my leadership team and I have not shied-away-from. We have deliberately focused our communication across digital platforms without losing the human touch.

This caring and radical candid communication approach gives rise to a workforce that grows together in and out of these tough times.

Developing skills to manage stress is an important tool in everyone’s armoury.

How do I personally cope with stress?

  • I fly. I’m an avid pilot and love the alone time in the air to reflect on past, current, and future challenges.
  • I leverage a core group of family and close friends to support me in times of need.
  • I prepare. The more stressed I am, the harder I work and, in my experience, the luckier I get.

Who do you most admire in business or who has been your biggest influence, and how have they affected you?

  • Elon Musk – It is inspiring to see how he has transformed a vision into a revolutionary reality by combining technology and business.
  • Mike Brown – Mike’s attitude, aptitude, and energy are, quite simply, extraordinary. His application and consistency over a 10+ year tenure is impressive. His ability to consistently display high levels of IQ and EQ is rare and is what sets him apart from his peers.

What 3 books would you recommend people read?

  • The Platform Revolution by Geoffrey G, Parker and Marshall W, Van Alstyne
  • Goliath’s Revenge: How Established Companies Turn the Tables on Digital Disruptors by Scott Snyder and Todd Hewlin
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins

What do you look for when you’re building a team?

‘Strategy precedes structure.’

Having the right strategy to build a team around is the first step. Nedbank’s IT strategy is anchored around 3 pillars: Digitise, Delight, and Disrupt. Each pillar has specific strategic technology focus areas. The right team is an outcome of the strategy. At Nedbank, we have come to realise that our secret to success is the use of technology as an enabler whilst harnessing the power of our people. With these two ingredients, Technology + Our People, we create agile teams that deliver delightful client experiences whilst driving our strategic mandate to Digitise, Delight, and Disrupt the financial services industry.

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How businesses can respond effectively to the second wave of COVID-19

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How businesses can respond effectively to the second wave of COVID-19 2

By William Copley, Founder and MD of leading business telecoms and connectivity solutions provider, Armstrong Bell is focused on helping other business in response to the pandemic. In this interview he provides advice to businesses on how they can response effectively to the second wave of coronavirus.

Tell us about your background. What were you doing prior to establishing Armstrong Bell and how did the business come about?

Prior to working within the telecoms industry and establishing Armstrong Bell, I was actually the frontman of a signed band for about 10 years. In between recording albums or playing shows, I worked varied hours for a company owned by a mate’s dad, pulling cables as a telephone engineer. So when the band wound down, I took on the role full-time.

After a few years, that business actually changed ownership, and they didn’t share the same focus on providing quality end user experience and in working with new technologies that I was both used to and valued as part of my role.

Ultimately, I knew I could improve a number of processes to make the organisation better, whilst cementing long-term relationships with customers. However, I also knew that the new management didn’t value my ideas, so I took the leap and founded my own telecoms systems business with a partner in 2001.

Although the business looks very different now, our values and my inspiration remain the same: To deliver tailored business telecoms solutions with exemplary customer service.

How has Armstrong Bell grown over the last 20 years? What do you attribute your success to?

Over the last 20 years, Armstrong Bell has grown from a start-up into one of West Midlands’ leading telecoms and connectivity solutions providers for businesses and other organisations across the region.

I think our success has been down to a number of things. The first is that we have always focused on solving a problem and delivering exemplary service to our customers as opposed to looking at where the next sale is coming from. Although establishing a strong sales operation is a key focus now as we aim to double our revenue in the next two years, our resolve to listen to our customer’s needs, create new and efficient solutions and help businesses find new and innovative ways of working through telecoms and connectivity solutions has and will continue to be fundamental to our growth.

Having been in business for 20 years, I also believe that persistence and tenacity have attributed to the success of the firm. I have worked through multiple recessions and survived and I’m always looking at new ways to solve any business problem, but without that sense of perseverance and drive to just keep pushing, I don’t think the business would be where it is today.

Besides the coronavirus pandemic, what are the biggest challenges that Armstrong Bell has had to face throughout its history? How did you respond to these challenges and what did you do to overcome them?

I think one of the main challenges I have had to work through is ensuring Armstrong Bell is as robust and resilient as possible. In the early days, we secured three main clients by being as responsive and helpful as possible, which meant all three grew into decent sized accounts. However, during the 2008/09 recession, one of the firms went into administration which made me realise how exposed to risk we were in relying on just three businesses for the majority of our monthly and annual revenue. As a result, I made the decision to spread the risk and work hard on driving new sales, upselling existing clients and establishing a strong client base, which meant if one left, we wouldn’t experience financial difficulty.

In the year that our biggest client went into administration, we ended up growing both in turnover and profit and were able to cement Armstrong Bell as a robust business, with robust foundations.

Do you think these experiences meant you were better equipped to approach the coronavirus pandemic than you would otherwise have been? How has the crisis affected the firm and what have you done in response?

I think when you have been in business for a long time, you learn not to panic regardless of the size of the challenge ahead. COVID-19 or no COVID-19, we all have cycles in business, which means there will be times when things are running smoothly and you are continuing to progress and others when sales are slow due to seasonal dips or growing pains.

However, building a business is a journey and it is in times of challenge and hardship that we learn the most, come up with our best ideas and create new ways of working that we otherwise wouldn’t have thought of before. At Armstrong Bell we’ve heard there’s a recession, but we’ve chosen not to take part – and that’s not because we haven’t been impacted by COVID-19, but because we are continuing to push forwards with our growth plans regardless of the destruction caused by the pandemic.

What support have you been providing to other businesses in response to the pandemic?

William Copley

William Copley

We have helped businesses in a number of different ways during the pandemic. When lockdown initially hit, we took the time to proactively contact our most impacted clients, such as those in events and hospitality, to see if they needed us to dial down their service or even turn it off, which the majority agreed to and were grateful for.

In addition, we have helped many businesses move to mass remote working by creating Connected Workspaces, which allow team members to collaborate with anyone, at any time from any place through simple, fast and flexible telecoms and connectivity solutions. For many businesses, it is the development of a Connected Workspace that has enabled them to continue to adapt and respond to the changing COVID-19 landscape, without impacting operations and resulting product and/or service delivery.

What must businesses learn from the first wave of coronavirus in order to survive the second? 

COVID-19 hasn’t stopped at any point, but I think how business owners now respond to the ongoing pandemic has completely changed. Initially, I think there was a clear divide between reactions, with many business owners panicking and pausing activity to ‘wait and see’ what would happen and others pushing on full steam ahead so that as markets started to recover, they would come out on top. However, now there is no definitive end to the pandemic, businesses have no choice but to continue to push through the challenges and find new and innovative ways of working that ensure they will survive for the long-term.

What gives you hope for the future? Are there any words of encouragement that you can give to other business owners who might be struggling/fearful for the future?

There will be an end point to COVID-19 in that we have either learnt to live with it and can control it or that we would have found a vaccine that works to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, at the very least.

In the meantime, despite how challenging the last 6 months and the next 6 months may seem, there are so many positives that can be taken from this situation. In business, this includes the opportunity it has provided to evaluate operations and to find new, innovative ways of working and, in life, to remind you of what is most important.

The power of mindset is an incredible thing, meaning if you focus on what you can control, what you change and what you can achieve, you are far more likely to experience a better outcome.

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