‘Irish consumers are woefully underserved in terms of personal finance’

23 Jul 2019

Chris Paul. Image: Avantcard

Avantcard CEO Chris Paul on the lack of innovation in the wake of the financial crisis, and how he manages his team amid such challenges.

Chris Paul is the CEO of Avantcard, an Irish consumer finance provider offering credit card and personal loan products. The company is headquartered in Leitrim with a satellite office in Dublin.

Paul has more than 25 years’ experience in cards, payments and lending, with a career including blue-chip companies such as Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Citibank and Barclaycard. He has international experience across Asia, Latin America, Canada and EMEA, including time spent living and working in Belgium, Singapore and Thailand. He currently splits his time between his home in the UK and Avantcard’s two offices in Ireland.

‘Always hire people smarter than yourself. Never let your ego get in the way of this’

Describe your role and what you do.

I have held the role of CEO of Avantcard since October 2017. Avantcard is Ireland’s leading open-market consumer finance provider, offering a full suite of financing options to consumers. In this role, I lead a diverse workforce of more than 250 people, providing loans and credit cards across Ireland from our headquarters in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I spend each working week in Ireland, then head home to the UK for the weekends. This was a conscious decision I made coming into the role as I was firmly of the opinion that, as CEO of a business in rapid growth mode, I needed to be visible, accessible and to be seen to lead from the front. Without any distractions, it‘s allowed me to totally immerse myself in the business, understand the underlying dynamics and invariable nuances you find in any organisation, and, most important of all, get to know the people.

I stay in a local hotel, which means that I’m able to get to the office first thing in the morning when the doors open at 7.15am. I then have some time to think about the day ahead, do any prep that’s needed and grab my first coffee before I inevitably get sucked into a day of back-to-back meetings.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?
  • Regulatory scrutiny is getting greater every year with the challenge it brings in terms of balancing commercial and control agendas both competing for resources and investment
  • Capitalising on the time-bound opportunity to bring something new to Irish consumer finance before other firms either up their game or enter the market
  • The ongoing, never-ending war for talent
  • Remaining focused – placing the right bets at the right time, realising that we can do anything but not everything
What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Irish consumers are woefully underserved in terms of personal finance right now. Post-financial crisis, there’s been little innovation in the market. Avantcard, as a specialist open-market lender, is focused on bringing about change. It really isn’t rocket science – consumers simply want exciting benefits, excellent service, and want to be recognised as individuals and treated accordingly.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I had no firm long-term goals when I started out. I wanted to work as hard as I could and do the best job possible, and see where it took me. Despite having no set idea of where my career would ultimately take me, I’m very happy where I’ve ended up – being part of a fabulous business, leading an incredible team on a journey to transform the consumer finance landscape in Ireland and, thankfully, growing at a rate of knots.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Succumbing to pressure early in my career and, on the odd occasion, compromising my values. I quickly learned to always be true to yourself and do the right thing even when it isn’t the easiest or most popular option. Never ever compromise on your personal values. Be able to look at yourself in the mirror and feel good not only about what you’ve achieved but, equally importantly, how you’ve gone about achieving it.

How do you get the best out of your team?
  • First and foremost, always hire people smarter than yourself.  Never let your ego get in the way of this
  • Trust people to do the job you’ve brought them in to do
  • Remove barriers and obstacles, don’t be the cause of them
  • Make sure that any organisation you’re part of has a culture that allows the business to attract, develop and retain talent; where people feel truly valued and can realise their maximum potential
  • Get consensus wherever possible, but be decisive when necessary
Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

In short, yes, especially at more senior levels of management. So, by way of example, last year we commenced an external search to find a new chief financial officer. We were very clear with the search firm that was supporting us that we wanted to see a balanced roster of male and female candidates. Yet they couldn’t provide this – and it wasn’t for lack of trying, but because female candidates with the necessary skills and experience just weren’t out there.

The good news is that things have started to change and some of the barriers that have created diversity problems in the past are being removed. The bad news is that it’s taking far too long and, even when barriers are no longer there, it’s going to take potentially a generation before we see senior leaders in financial services represented across the full diversity spectrum.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career? If so, how?

I’ve never had a mentor per se. That said, I’ve worked for a large number of people over the years. Two, in particular, I hold in the highest regard and have stayed in touch with. First, they were incredibly strong professionals and I learned so much just by being in their presence and observing how they went about their business. Second, because they were just good human beings. Most of the others ticked one box or the other, but not both.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Shoe Dog is the autobiography of Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, and how he created one of the most recognisable and profitable brands in the world. A great read whether you’re a budding entrepreneur, a sports enthusiast or lover of iconic brands.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Some basic tech kit, a good paperback, Netflix, Spotify and, most important of all, a wonderful executive assistant.

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