The diminutive Welsh woman who founded the UK’s first digital-only bank is the queen of understatement.
Looking as far removed from the typical banking stereotype as possible, Swansea-born Anne Boden chortled as she says: “There I was, a 5ft tall Welsh woman, still with my Welsh accent, knocking at the doors of big city law firms saying I’m going to start a bank.
“I said you’ve just got to give me a couple of hundred million and I’ll make you lots of money.”
If trying to start a bank sounds like an “audacious plan”, that’s because it is admits Anne. Yet it took her a tough two years to pull the money together and now, aged 61, she can sit back and say she’s done it and is the chief executive of Starling Bank.
After launching in 2017, two million people have opened an account with Starling and it has more than £6 billion in deposits. The bank is today the fastest-growing bank for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe and it’s on track to report its first year of profit by the end of the next financial year.
It’s been a “rollercoaster of a ride” to get here, admits Anne, another devastating understatement as she recounts how she almost lost her fledgling business on separate occasions thanks to a clash of personalities and a public row with the man who would eventually go on to found the London-based online bank, Monzo.
The roots of her one-woman quest to rebuild Britain’s banking system, starting from the ground up, can be traced all the way back to the four-year-old girl growing up in Bonymaen in Swansea in 1964. An only child, she lived with supportive and devoted parents: Nancy, who worked in the local department store, and Jack, who worked for British Steel.
“I’d always loved science and technology,” explained Anne excitedly, her infectious grin matched by a sparkle in her eyes.
“My fourth birthday present was a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Which is a very strange present but I loved it, playing around with that sort of thing.”
She chortles again – something she will do often during our chat: “And I’ve still got it.”
Anne went to Cefn Hengoed school – “where very few people go on to university” – before studying computer science and chemistry at Swansea University.
“Computer science at that stage wasn’t very popular but I loved it,” she said. “It was very easy for me but chemistry was a bit different – it was all about experiments and Bunsen burners and chemicals and I hated it.” She still hates cooking for the same reasons, she laughed. Her two loves in life are technology and shoes – she couldn’t live without either she admits.
After graduating, the young Anne had no desire to head for London but it was her mother who pushed her to find a “safe normal job”. Despite the odds being stacked against her, Anne won a place on the coveted Lloyds Bank graduate scheme. Arriving in the big smoke in 1981 signalled the beginning of a career in banking that would take Anne all over the world and eventually to the top of the tree.
“It was brilliant – all of a sudden I realised I was much better at work than I was a academics,” said Anne brightly, who could hardly believe her luck. “It was interesting things with interesting people and I got to play with computers and they would even pay me for it.”
While the graduate scheme allowed Anne to try her hand at every facet of the business, she was quick to realise that “all the exciting work was being done in the front office while I was working in the back office with the computers”. So Anne embarked on an MBA, which she studied in the evenings because she couldn’t afford to study in London full time.
After a stint at Price Waterhouse, Anne took a job with the Swiss bank, UBS. It took another nudge from her parents – her dad this time- to set her in a direction she hadn’t quite anticipated.
“My dad phoned me up and said he needed a new lawnmower,” said Anne. “I was living in Hampstead and dad said it must be full of rich people with big houses and gardens so could I find a second hand lawnmower.
“I got the local newspaper and there were no lawnmowers but there was someone offering German lessons. So I thought, I’ll learn German. I did after all work in a Swiss bank.”
She managed to convince her bosses to send her out to Switzerland where she spent the next four years learning German. Despite growing up with a Welsh-speaking mum, Anne never learned her native tongue but is fluent in English, German and Dutch.
“There’s no doubt that I speak English with a Welsh accent, I speak German with a Swiss accent, and I speak Dutch with a German accent,” said Anne. When she returned to London, she was becoming “quite serious” and started working for Dutch bank ABN AMRO where she was responsible for European transaction banking, working with some of the biggest companies in the world as they did business in places like Russia and Kazakhstan.
It was a “fascinating job” until RBS bought out the company and Anne quit to spend a year in Fintech. It was during that time she first came across GoCardless and a man called Tom Blomfield, who would eventually go on to found Monzo. Anne’s corporate career culminated with a move to Dublin in 2012 to join Allied Irish Banks as group chief operating officer with the brief to return the bank to profitability.
“In that job I realised banking was doing the wrong thing and if someone was brave enough they would quit their job and start a new bank,” she said
“So I did,” she added matter of factly. “That’s the start of Starling.” She omits the fact that she is the first woman ever to found a UK bank.
Why call it Starling, I ask? “Because they go into other peoples’ territory and knock them off their perch and that’s us,” she says with a sly smile. She now has offices in London, Southampton and employs 400 people in Cardiff.
The banking sector was certainly ripe for disruption. It wasn’t just because technology was changing the way we all lived our lives but also because Anne found that as the financial crisis deepened in 2008/09 she began to feel ashamed of what she did for a living.
“I was ashamed to be a banker,” she said, her ever-present smile momentarily disappearing. “I’d get into a taxi and people would ask what I do and I’d say anything but the fact that I’m a banker. But now I’m in a situation where I’m proud of what we do.
“I’m proud of our people and it’s hugely motivating.”
She wanted to create a bank without the bureaucracy, where opening an account took minutes not weeks, which delivered instant spending notifications and insights and which helped customers set and reach saving goals. She knew she had the know-how to make it work but what she didn’t have was the financial backing.
“I was fortunate – I’d had a long career in banking, I could afford not to have a salary for a couple of years,” explained Anne.
“I knew it could be done but people told me I was crazy and that it couldn’t be done. If I look back at what I was telling people, it’s probably unbelievable. There I was saying it was only going to cost a couple of hundred million and it’s going to have all new technology from scratch because I know all about technology, it’s going to have a very different model because it’s going to treat customers fairly, and I’m going to apply for a banking licence and it’s all going to come together and you’ve just got to give me a couple of hundred million and I’ll make you lots of money.”
She stops to take a breath before launching into it again: “It was a rollercoaster but sometimes when things are going really bad it’s sometimes easier to carry on rather than stop and if you carry on a bit further, things will get better. I nearly lost my business several times but the bad times make the good times so much better.”
One of the lowest points was a very public feud with former Starling chief technology officer Tom Blomfield, who left with other early members of the management and engineering team to found rival challenger bank Monzo.
After Mr Blomfield tried, and then failed, to organise an alleged coup, Anne initially stepped aside. But after a pep talk from a tech entrepreneur friend she took back her bank, losing most of her staff in the process. She was literally the last woman standing.
After starting from scratch a second time, Anne hired a new team all of whom worked for virtually nothing for the best part of a year until, at the end of 2015, she was summoned to the Bahamas to meet billionaire Harald McPike, the man behind the iconic Palm development in Dubai. He was interested in investing in the challenger banking market and Anne spent three days – some of it on his yacht – having questions fired at her. They were the most intelligent questions she’d ever been asked about Starling but by the time Anne flew home, she had £48m in backing.
In July 2016, Starling got its banking licence. Anne still hasn’t got to the point where she can sit back and say ‘Yes, we made it’ but getting the banking licence was a very significant – and emotional – moment.
“Even now, I’m still quite taken by it,” she said understatedly. There can surely be no harder start-up than a bank?
“When you start any journey, you have certain assumptions that it will be a rational process and there won’t be things coming from the left field to set you on the wrong direction,” she said carefully.
“If you did think of all the things that could go wrong, you wouldn’t start. I was trying to do something that had never been done before, and I’d never been an entrepreneur before, and I had no track record. Somebody said ‘You’ve never started a bank before’ and I said ‘Well people don’t start banks’.
“But there must’ve been a day when somebody said let’s start one of the existing banks.”
Yet with success comes a huge responsibility: “We are responsible for millions of customers and looking after their money, so it’s not just running a business but also a personal responsibility to do the right thing by customers.”
Why, aged 61, take on such a responsibility? Remarkably, Anne says she is only just at the beginning of this stage of her career and doesn’t even begin to contemplate slowing down. She sits on the board of UK Finance and is an adviser to the Board of Trade and she was even awarded an MBE for services to financial technology in 2018.
“I think that I’ve learned so much in the journey that I’m really excited about the next stage,” she said. “I think I’m on the starting blocks rather than having achieved anything. This is us in the market now, with customers, really ready to go and I’m excited.”
She is adamant that women don’t have to conform to stereotypes to be happy. Women fill more than 40% of the senior roles at Starling and Anne happily admits the bank takes up her whole life.
“I’m quite a people person too,” said Anne, who strongly believes that’s why she’s been as successful as she has. “I love getting stuck into detail and driving things forward and working with people. There’s no secret that I work all the time and I love it. I work all the time.”
She might now live in London full time, but Swansea is still home. Anne used to regularly return to Killay, where she had a house, until she sold it in 2015 to help fund her new venture. She is still in touch with her best friend from junior school, who she used to have dancing lessons with. And while she never married or had children, she has grown and nurtured her banking baby to become a major force in the banking world.
“Did I think when I was a child in Bonymaen in Swansea that I would be sitting here?” she asks, waving her hands around. “It’s a great position to be in.” And yet she is the first to admit she is also incredibly privileged to be there.
“One of the things I feel quite strongly about is the start-up, venture capital scene is very much dominated by people of privilege because they can afford to start businesses and their parents can pick up the pieces if things don’t go right,” she continues.
“I think there’s not much true diversity in most of the world’s workings. I was very fortunate in that I did a computer science degree at a time when people weren’t doing it and despite not wanting to go to London, I went to London and I was put into a world where I was quite unusual.
“But I think I had the resilience to understand that things are more difficult for certain people – like if you’re a woman or from quite an ordinary background -but if you realise what you’re up against then I think you’re prepared to fight for it, and I think I fought for it.”