The dramatic design of the Leadenhall building in the City of London tells us a little of how modern capitalism is viewed by those paid to grease its wheels. The wedge-shaped 45-storey skyscraper known as the Cheesegrater is like an architectural treatise on the might of the financial sector.
It starts at the front door. An enormous three-lane escalator runs directly from the plaza outside up to main reception on the third level. Visitors don’t simply walk in off the street; they must ascend high into the building, as if on a stairway to the heavens. Clearly, the almighty must work inside. The Cheesegrater houses funds, insurers and banks.
A huge red neon sign, an installation by artist Emma Smith, hangs high to the left of the escalators amid the building’s glass and steel. The letters in all the words are squished together. “We are all one,” it says. Then the second L flickers like a faulty bulb, and dims. “We are alone,” the sign reads now, shimmering in its own sense of profundity.
Financial workers high up in the Cheesegrater’s offices look down at the City below. But on the fifteenth floor, one of Ireland’s top bankers is striving to strike a less imperious tone.
David Duffy is naturally smooth and self-assured. Today, the former AIB chief executive who now runs Virgin Money UK, Britain’s sixth-biggest lender, also projects a conscious informality. He is wearing jeans in the office. The bank’s offices feel more like a tech company’s. This is what he wants.
Last year, the Evening Standard wrote that if there was a ‘woke Olympics for CEOs, Duffy would win the decathlon’. He laughs off the jibe
Duffy walks out to greet me at its reception as I come through Virgin’s front door. He offers me coffee and brings me to a meeting room. No assistant, no secretary, nobody to escort me to an audience with him as would usually be the case when visiting the chief executive of a big business: Virgin Money has a loan book of £72.5 billion (€83.6 billion), revenues of almost £2.8 billion and 7,500 staff.
Duffy is building a non-conventional workspace as the company essentially pivots into a consumer-facing fintech in a digitised world. “Pure tech” is coming to banking, he says.
The bank’s staff don’t have to come to the office any more; they can work from anywhere under its “A Life More Virgin” flexible working policy. The bank’s office in the Cheesegrater is meant to be just a “collaborative space”.
‘New world of work’
While Duffy is based in London, his personal assistant, whom he shares with the company’s chairman, lives 275 miles away.
“It’s not hard, is it?” asks Duffy. “I can go and meet you in the lobby myself and find us a coffee. I can open doors myself. My secretary is a mother of three and she can live in Newcastle [where the company also has an office]. I see her three or four times a year. I don’t need an assistant sitting 10 feet from me to admire my greatness.”
“There is a new world of work and it is here for the long term,” he says.
Duffy has two homes – one in London and the other in Roaringwater Bay, west Cork, which he bought recently. The attic of his London home is converted into a home office, with computer screens and an iPad and lighting system for video calls.
“I have that full set-up in west Cork too. Where I work is not about the destination. It’s about value added.”
He spent two weeks during the summer working from Roaringwater Bay. He says he was at an artificial intelligence conference recently in Seattle, and also worked from there. His senior leadership team of six includes four women hired from the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Sweden.
“They work wherever. From here, there, everywhere.”
On average, staff still choose to come to the office two days per week. “That’s with no coercion. But now our employee engagement is really high, performance is really good and productivity is off the charts. We get three or four times the number of applicants for jobs that we got before, and attrition is half what it was.”
Some of the company’s hiring practices are also unconventional. Instead of sitting across from applicants at a table to do an interview, Duffy’s leadership team puts them – literally – on a stage. Executives interview them from audience seats. It puts a whole new slant on the notion of assessing performance.
“You ask them questions onstage and see how they do. It’s part of finding out about their personality. You look for certain types of people. Do they freeze? Who is too cocky?”
Virgin’s new fintech working culture has been noticed in the City. Last year, the Evening Standard wrote that if there was a “woke Olympics for CEOs, Duffy would win the decathlon”.
He laughs off the jibe.
“We want to be the best digital bank in the UK. That’s not an idle statement. We want to be like a fintech that grew up and became incredibly successful, and also had all the products.”
I took the AIB job with a very clear view that you weren’t going to be met on a red carpet with rose petals. It was obviously a very difficult time – not for the bank, but for people who had damage done by banks— David Duffy, on his tenure as CEO of AIB
Duffy is the embodiment of the metropolitan, international Irish executive. He was born in London, raised in Dublin by his aunt and uncle, whom he considers his parents, and the family later moved to Cork. After college, he spent most of his career in banking outside of Ireland, including stints in Amsterdam and Singapore, where he worked for Standard Bank.
In 2011, he took over as chief executive of bailed-out AIB. He eventually dragged it back to profitability, although he quit in January 2015 as the government dragged its heels over a flotation. His time at AIB was a febrile one for bankers everywhere, as the public vented its post-crash fury.
“I took the AIB job with a very clear view that you weren’t going to be met on a red carpet with rose petals. It was obviously a very difficult time – not for the bank, but for people who had damage done by banks.”
Duffy’s pay last year was £2.3 million at the London- and Australia-listed Virgin Money. It was less than €500,000 at AIB due to the government’s banker pay caps. He says the limits don’t seem to stop Irish banks from attracting top executives, but in the longer term they will do damage as increasingly digitised banks look for talent.
“You have very capable people in the sector consistently since I left. So I’m not sure the cap is the single arbiter of whether you get good people. But when you are fighting with tech companies to hire people who understand AI – because that is what the next 10 years will be – you may eventually have to think about whether you’re funding the industry correctly.”
He says Ireland has plenty of “banking facilities”, but needs more competition due to its exodus of banks. The evidence can be seen, he says, in the lower deposit rates paid in the Irish market.
In Britain, consumers complain over deposit rates that are a multiple of the minuscule rates paid to customers of Irish banks. Duffy has accounts in both jurisdictions, and says the disparity “amuses me no end”.
When he left AIB he took over Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank, then a subsidiary of National Australia Bank. Duffy led it into a £1.6 billion initial public offering in early 2016 before, two years later, taking over Virgin Money in a £1.7 billion deal.
Everything has since been rebranded under the Virgin moniker at the FTSE 250 bank, as Duffy slims down the number of branches and focuses on technology.
Its future is as part of a Virgin-branded “everything app” offering all of the services in the wider Virgin franchise group, which includes more than 30 companies as diverse as airlines, cruise ships, hotels and wine suppliers.
Virgin Money is building a single app incorporating all of its services, including mortgages, accounts, credit cards etc. Some time next year, the app will be “plugged in to” all of the offers from other Virgin companies, using software called Virgin Red.
By 2025, it will also include a wallet payments function that can be used across the group. So customers could, for example, accrue points or cashback in its banking service that could be used to pay for flights or hotels. Duffy suggests the wallet and payments function might be called V Pay.
“As a customer of Virgin, you’ll get digital best-in-class and the convenience of one place. You’ll get cashback that’s leading in the market, as well as loyalty points and offers from all across the Virgin group. And you’ll get that all on one screen. It’s like an everything app, but a Virgin brand of it.”
He said the app may in future link in with other outside companies, but he is also cautious about bringing it outside of the Virgin group.
“The danger is you stray away from the core function of banking, which is a very serious business, and then there are always blow-ups. So you stay true to that. Don’t make it too gimmicky.”
Virgin founder Richard Branson owns about 13 per cent of Virgin Money’s shares. Does Duffy have a good business relationship with him?
“Richard Branson is a shareholder, that’s all, and I see him intermittently for fun.”
All the chief executives of the Virgin-branded companies regularly get together for think-ins. The last one was in the new Virgin hotel in Edinburgh.
It has lower productivity and growth than you would wish for. But it is has enormous underlying strength. If there is a cycle of growth, this economy could fly— David Duffy on the UK economy
“Richard came along and opened it and we had a chief executive meeting for a couple of days. We were all playing with AI. I went into a bar and [virtually] ordered a drink and then they put it in front of you. You don’t do things like that in a dull bank.”
Duffy was among the leaders of Britain’s biggest banks who were called in to a meeting in Downing Street earlier in the summer with chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt. The meeting was called when mortgage rates soared, and the UK government sought to pressure lenders to limit costs for consumers. Duffy was pictured walking into the meeting in casual blue shoes, as he had injured his foot and couldn’t wear normal business footwear.
“I think I wore the wrong shoes, from what I saw in the media. I always thought it was what went on in your head that matters, not what’s going on on your feet.”
What was it like being “called in” by the person in charge of Britain’s economy?
“The reality is that it was very constructive. People think that because there is theatre and noise outside that it’s the same inside. It’s not. There were grown-ups in the room. This is the sixth largest economy in the world, and the chancellor is in the room along with everyone who drives the flow of all lending. How how do we make things better? It was rational. The intent was good.”
Will Britain’s spluttering post-Brexit economy be okay?
“It has lower productivity and growth than you would wish for. But it is has enormous underlying strength. If there is a cycle of growth, this economy could fly.”
Along with former Bank of Ireland chief executive Francesca McDonagh, Duffy’s name has been whispered in the City as a possible contender to be the next permanent chief executive of NatWest to replace Alison Rose, who quit in a row over the closure of Nigel Farage’s account. Duffy shuts down the rumour and suggests Virgin may be his last job in international banking.
“In short, no,” he says, when asked if he is in the frame for NatWest. “A bigger bank would be less attractive to me than what I’ve got here. I’ve ruled myself out of everything else.”
He suggests the time may come in a few years to move on, when he has built Virgin into the FTSE 100 contender and digital bank he wants it to be. He got married in 2019, his 62nd birthday is tomorrow, and his daughter gave birth to his first grandchild last year. When Duffy leaves Virgin, he suggests, he will return to Ireland, and to Roaringwater Bay.
“That is why I have bought that house. I still have all my friends there. The culture of Ireland is what I warm to most. So I’m going back when I’m done here.”
Eventually, the time comes to bring it all back home.
Age: 62 on Saturday
Family: Married to Carolyn. Each has two daughters and one son
Home: Split between London and Roaringwater Bay, west Cork
First job: Selling Christmas trees in Dublin.
Something you would expect: “Being a chief executive is the best job in the world.”
Something that might surprise: He would have been a teacher if not a banker.