'How you interact with clients is so key, because ultimately it's a people business': Alisdair Dewar, who leads Coutts in Scotland, on his career, key lessons, and his ambitions for the private bank
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Coutts, which is part of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) parent company NatWest Group, now has three offices in Scotland – Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
It's really important to me that if you want to be taken seriously in Scotland, you have to have people in place locally and actual physical office space as well, which is why we have invested in three key areas in Scotland.
We are serving clients from Orkney down to the Borders. While we don’t have an office in every location, we try to visit as many as we can as often as we can, and we have the three major cities covered – there aren’t many private banks that can say they’re sitting in three Scottish locations.
It’s a statement of intent of Coutts’ commitment to Scotland and what we want to achieve in Scotland in terms of its success. I think we’re a very successful nation – we’re seeing an increase in custom from the gaming and tech and medical sectors, for example.
Coutts will celebrate its 330th anniversary this year, and it was started by three Scottish families – the Campbells, the Middletons, and the Coutts themselves. The bank’s history was formed by those key families, who came from different parts of Scotland.
Today, it’s a question of how we take that into a modern-day offering and demonstrate that what it was founded on centuries ago is true today – we almost feel like our team is a family and we work with a lot of family businesses.
I started my career with RBS, working in its branch in Callander. You learn so much from a rural branch, from all the different walks of life that would come in – including family businesses, entrepreneurs, tourists and locals.
I look back very fondly on that time – it also showed me that it's not just one individual, it is about working collectively for the greater good. I then joined Edinburgh-based private bank Adam & Company – 23 years ago this year, in fact – and clients of its banking and lending business will transfer to Coutts in July, subject to approval.
At Adam & Company I was given exposure to every part of the business. It was a great foundation for a career in private banking, and ultimately client service.
However, while I’ve spent my whole career in financial services, that wasn’t my original plan. When I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided to go to university, but only because that’s what everybody in my class was doing. I started a maths and computing science degree, for no rhyme nor reason other than I was relatively good at numbers – but ultimately being a student just wasn't for me.
I had a summer job with RBS and before I went back for my second year of university, they offered me a full-time role. I remember phoning my parents, and they were fully supportive, although I'm also sure they told me I was going to have to start paying rent!
Staying on with the bank just felt like the right thing to do – and I continued my education there. One of the first things that happened when I arrived at Adam & Company was my boss handing me an application form to sit my banking exams.
She was a real mentor, a real coach, and very inspirational to me, and she was very clear that if I was going to be working with her, I was to be qualified.It’s something that I’ve taken on board, and I think if you’re sitting in front of clients, then you should have industry-approved qualifications to back up what you’re saying.
As for the skills private banking requires, you do need qualifications, but how you interact with clients, how you interact with people generally, is really so key, because ultimately it's a people business.
I remember getting great advice early on in my career that it’s vital to “be interested – and be interesting”. You need to be able to listen to the client, and understand their needs and their family's needs.
But I think you also need to be able to add to the conversation, whether it's just generally, or whether it's the complexities of financial requirements.
Our clients all have different backgrounds, and different ways in which they've got to where they are today. We help them achieve their goals and aspirations, whether that's, say, buying their dream house, or looking after the money they’ve generated from selling their business.
You learn a lot about clients as you take them through their financial journey. They ask me about their finances, of course, but they also seek advice on decisions that may influence their finances, the real big picture view that builds up through years of service. You become a confidant to them, and this is very much the case with many of my clients.
Looking ahead, next-generation education for me is a huge priority, whether it be the value of money or what you can do philanthropically, which is key for a lot of clients going forward and something that will be well-threaded into the fibres of Coutts in Scotland.
Another key focus for me is getting out and about again and seeing clients. I can write to people as many times as I want, but nothing's better than face to face, so my intentions are to continue to do that across the three Scottish offices.
It’s a case of being out on the front foot with Coutts’ offering in Scotland, which has had a good start, and we will build on that. Coutts’ success in Scotland will be based on the success of our clients; the more successful Scotland is, the better a society we can build.
As told to Emma Newlands