Berlin calling: Dubliner ready to make her mark as N26 grows up
N26’s new chief operating officer Adrienne Gormley on joining the fast-growing fintech
Adrienne Gormley, N26’s new chief operating officer
Adrienne Gormley is used to people being a little surprised by some of the decisions she’s made in life, but even she was taken aback by her brother’s reaction to her considering a job in banking.
“He laughed out loud,” she says of her sibling who has been working in the financial sector his whole career.
Gormley, who is N26’s new chief operating officer, was previously vice-president of global customer experience and head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for Dropbox. Prior to her new job she had spent most of her career working in tech with the primary focus being on keeping customers happy, rather than worrying about the bottom line. So you can see why her brother might have been amused by the idea of her changing roles.
“His initial reaction was ‘you must be joking’, but then after a short while he could see why I was interested in them and why they were interested in me,” Gormley says, speaking about her new employer .
“I’ve always been interested in disruption, and particularly how technology can disrupt things so I was really fascinated by what N26 was doing in terms of banking. I had personally experienced how easy it was to sign up for an account with them and had become something of an evangelist so when I was approached about the role, I was certainly interested in having a chat with them. Having done that, I really thought there was something I could contribute,” she adds.
The Dubliner made the leap into banking in November when she joined the Berlin-headquartered fintech, which along with other so-called “neobanks” like Revolut, Starling and Monzo, have mounted a serious challenge to traditional lenders in recent years.
N26 currently provides one free current account and three monthly subscription offerings, which all include a number of money-management features. As with other neobanks, opening up an account takes minutes rather than days or even weeks, as was once the case with traditional banks. Users get a Mastercard, free ATM withdrawals, no monthly maintenance fees, no forex charges and so on.
The company started out without a banking licence but was granted a full one by the German financial regulator BaFin in 2016.
“We have a fantastic business model based on the EU banking licence so the business is really safe and secure with deposits guaranteed and so on. What we offer is everything that customers expect from a traditional bank but this is combined with an agility that allows us to do so much more,” says Gormley.
Her new role is far-reaching, with her having responsibility for overseeing N26’s customer service, business operations, service experience and workplace divisions. It’s also significant in that the role of chief operating officer is often regarded as a stepping stone to becoming chief executive officer.
“N26 is a company that is scaling rapidly and I felt that with my 20-plus years working in the technology sector and having a good understanding of how to scale that I could play a key role in thinking strategically about how we deal with the growth we’re experiencing and future-proof it,” she says.
Gormley has been based in Berlin the last few months where she has been learning the lie of the land. Even over Zoom, her excitement at taking up the new challenge is obvious, although she admits that the timing of her appointment wasn’t great.
“The plan was to commute between Berlin and Dublin, but that hasn’t worked out as well as I’d hoped because of travel restrictions and lockdowns. I have a teenage daughter and a husband in Bray and was hoping to get home regularly to see them, but finding flights hasn’t always been easy,” she says.
Nonetheless, even with lockdown restrictions in place in Berlin, Gormley is enjoying being in the city and getting to meet new colleagues in person whenever possible. Given her qualification as a translator and the fact she worked for a number of years in Germany in that role, Gormley is happy exploring Berlin in her downtime.
Many of her workmates are fluent in English though, so there’s little need for her to speak German most of the time.
N26 offers a range of banking services and has big ambitions for Ireland and globally. Founded by Maximilian Tayenthal and Valentin Stalf in February 2013, the company has seven million customers, employs more than 1,500 people and has raised close to $800 millionn (€660 million) to date. Having launched services in Ireland in late 2015, it expects to surpass 200,000 customers here in the coming months. Ms Gormley believes that, having grown its customer base by 50 per cent in the past year alone, it could reach one million subscribers here.
“There were many reasons why joining N26 might seem like a leftwards move in terms of them being in banking and with the role being based in Germany. But one thing I saw with N26 that matched my experience working at other tech companies was that there is an amazing entrepreneurial spirit here. Together with banking expertise, this is really driving innovation in a sector in which it has traditionally been difficult to be innovative,” she says.
Before working at Dropbox, Gormley spent seven years at Google, where her roles included serving as advertising head for the Nordics. Other former employers include Creative Labs and Microsoft. Gormley has also been active on other fronts, serving as chair of the not-for-profit Making Connections, and having previously been on the board of the American Chamber of Commerce and been lead entrepreneur on the Enterprise Ireland-backed Going for Growth programme for businesswomen.
She admits that getting up to scratch on intricate banking regulations has been time consuming and exhausting, but she’s also intrigued about how companies such as N26 can be innovative when they face restrictions that tech giants such as Google typically don’t.
“I’m really excited about playing a part in solving the issue that comes with growth, particularly in a sector that is highly regulated. In many other industries, it is easier to be disruptive because you’re not rubbing up against regulations so frequently, but obviously with banking, it is a whole other story and rightly so,” she says.
“We have to collaborate with regulators so that we understand compliance properly, but also so that they can learn from us about what customers want and how we hope to respond to this,” Gormley adds.
While N26 is very much focused on retail banking, Gormley believes this only represents a beginning for the company. “Retail banking is just the start that leads to a full suite of banking services. The disruption you’re seeing now in the banking sector is only in its infancy. There is a long way to go yet,” she says.
N26 hasn’t had it all easy. It withdrew from Britain last year, ostensibly due to Brexit although the company was struggling to get a foothold in the market. However, outside of this it hasn’t experienced some of the difficulties that rivals such as Monzo have faced.
“I think it would be unusual if there weren’t growing pains in any sector and in banking the traditional banks are also experiencing that in moving to digital. But I think we’re in a really strong position because we’ve taken our time and got the fundamentals right such as obtaining a banking licence so that gives us a very sold foundation on which to build,” she says.
Gormley says she doesn’t always do what is expected and it may be this as much as her obvious in-depth experience that piqued the interest of N26. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn’t start out by studying for an MBA, but instead opted for zoology.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be growing up but loved science so that is how I came to specialise in entomology. Throughout my career I’ve never really sought out particular roles but have followed my interests and that has led me to here,” she says.
“I love that feeling of standing near the edge of the cliff. This role and others I’ve had have often had that precariousness about them in that you have to take the right steps to ensure you end up on safe ground,” says Gormley.
“There are plenty of challenges and opportunities but you also have to weigh up the costs of those to decide which if any of them are the ones you should take.”
Gormley fell into working in the tech sector after she returned to Ireland from Germany in the late 1990s where she spent a few years in Bavaria working as a translator. At that point there was heavy demand from tech companies for people with language skills and she landed a job with Microsoft leading localisation projects.
Having been back home for many years, it is an exciting time to be outside her comfort zone again.
“There have been plenty of times when people have asked me am I mad. Moving to Berlin during a pandemic might seem like a crazy thing to do but I’ve joined a company that is doing exciting things and to whose future I really think I can contribute,” she says.
“I’m a lot more confident in who I am now and in the reasons I make the choices I make than I was earlier in my career. It has always been important to me make clear decisions based on what interests me most,” Gormley adds.
The Dubliner may find herself facing her biggest challenge yet but she seems unafraid of what comes next.
“I hope to be on this journey for a long time because we’re still very much at the early stages of disruption and I really want to help N26 grow to become the biggest European digital bank, offering services that are really valued by its customers,” she says.