“ING is inside of me” - a final interview with Patrick Flynn

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15 May 2017

As ING’s chief financial officer, Patrick Flynn has seen the worst of times and the best of times. Ultimately responsible for the Bank’s financial wellbeing, he played a crucial role in many pivotal moments over his eight-year tenure. Finishing up after last week’s Annual Shareholders Meeting, we caught up with Patrick beforehand.

“I framed the press release when we announced that we had repaid the Dutch State.” - Patrick Flynn

“I framed the press release when we announced that we had repaid the Dutch State.” - Patrick Flynn

What do you plan to do after your last day at ING?

I’ll be back a couple of times in May but for the first time in my career I’m going to enjoy the summer. Back in 2009, I left HSBC on a Friday and started at ING on the following Monday. So this time I’m going to take some time to relax and try and wind down a bit.

We’re building a home in Spain as we speak. I’ll be heading there soon to make sure the house gets built the way we want. So that’s going to keep us busy for a little while at least. But I also plan on taking Spanish lessons. I speak fluent Portuguese from my time in Brazil and I can understand Spanish, but when I speak it, it is more like what they call ‘Portunhol’ which is a mixture of the two.

Looking back, you joined ING in early 2009, at a particularly difficult time for ING. How do you reflect on those times?

Well, I’m glad they’re over! It was a very, very difficult time. Between resigning from my last place and joining ING in April, I assumed that things would only improve. After all, the Alt-A deal had been done and state aid accepted. But it only got worse. In those intervening months nationalisation was being mentioned in the press and the share price collapsed to two euros a share. I had a pretty torrid time when I arrived and there were taut conversations with (then CEO) Jan Hommen who was describing the very difficult situation. I had my family around me in Amsterdam and there were moments where I was thinking: “Will I just have to get back on that plane and leave? Was it that bad?” So yes, there were extremely difficult times for ING, but with plenty of hard work we came through it.

Of all the stakeholders you were involved with, you probably know one best – the shareholder. How did shareholders look at ING eight years ago, compared to now?

Yes, when the share price collapses, market value collapses down to six billion euro and nationalisation is mentioned, you’re not popular. It doesn’t matter who you are, you are coloured by the environment. ING was performing very badly and, by inference, the management was performing badly even though most of us (MBB) were new. So there was quite a bit of criticism. We had to do an awful lot of restructuring and tidying up. Changing things, not only within the Bank, but also within the Insurer as we were still a banc-assurance company at the time. Changing the accounting, taking more write-offs. Cleaning things up. Managing volatility. Every time we announced this, it would be yet another unpleasant surprise from ING. Analysts had to shoot the messenger, so the bearer of the bad news was castigated for giving it.

Now you get compliments and I take both with equal measure. I don’t want to take compliments for being a good CFO, nor at the time did I particularly believe in the criticisms. You just keep trying to do the right thing. And certainly don’t let the compliments go to your head.

Has your job as CFO become progressively easier?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do! That’s been the mission. Simplify it and clean things up. We had huge restructuring to do and there were several times, had we not succeeded, it could have been extremely bad. We could have failed. It could have cost us a lot of money. Because being in the position where you have to sell off businesses with a deadline set by the European Commission, our future was on the line.

That’s all behind us. The challenges we face today are commercial. We’re in charge of our own destiny. There’s no more forced actions. We developed a Think Forward strategy centred around offering a differentiating customer experience. So nowadays our actions are based on our own strategy, not on restructuring. It’s fantastic to have that freedom, which we did not have in the first half of my tenure.

… when you really threaten ING, the team pulls together. It unites around our Orange Values. It is incredibly impressive to see. It happened so many times.

– CFO Patrick Flynn

You’ve been on the road many times for ING, going to all those roadshows to inform investors and journalists. What’s the most memorable moment from these road shows?

There are a number of investors who have been with us for quite some time, and some, you could tell, were trusting in you a bit as well. They had big positions and our share price had been pretty volatile and they had lost quite a bit of money. I remember at one of the investor days announcing a commitment to re-instigate dividends. I Iooked a couple of investors in the eye and mentioned them by name. Partly to make a point and to emphasise that point. I was not aiming to make them a personal commitment per se, although some of them may have taken it like that.

And I do recall after dividends were re-instated, walking into a meeting with a loyal and supportive investor and a guy came in with a bottle of champagne and handed it to me. “This is for the dividend,” he said, which was a particularly pleasant note. He had shared the tough times with ING and stayed with us. I was grateful for that. The amusing bit was Ralph (Hamers) was in the room but he gave it to me!

So I promptly brought it back and opened it at my quarterly town hall meeting and sprayed it around and said: “This is for everyone, not just for me. I’m the spokesperson for you, but you guys did all the work, so this champagne’s for all of us.”

What’s the most asked question during all those interviews, press conferences, analyst calls?

In the TV interviews there’s an element of what’s topical. They tend to have an overall theme. The analysts now are transfixed on whether interest margins are going up or down. It’s almost to the point where one basis point move, which is very small, gets a degree of prominence it doesn’t deserve.

But we have achieved all the targets we set ourselves. We’re very close to cost income ratio targets as well. So there aren’t big issues. In the past it was: Can you do the restructuring? Can you ever sell this or that business? Will you have to pay to get it off your hands? But it changed over time. Dividend, dividend, when will you pay a dividend? That was a big one for a while, but we returned to paying dividends so that stopped as well.

Eight years on, what are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. We’ve taken ING away from an extremely difficult position and made it into a profitable, highly-regarded bank. We repaid the Dutch State and it made a big profit! I framed the press release when we announced this and still have it in my office.

Today, ING is worth nearly 60 billion euros. It pays a very healthy dividend. And we’re growing. We’re regarded for our strategy, for being a leader in digital banking and a leader in the banking world. That transformation I am extremely proud of. And extremely proud of the team that delivered it. I know this is an interview about me, but don’t mistake that this success has been attributable to one person. It has definitely not. It has been very much teamwork.

The big overriding memory and point of pride for me is that teamwork. On the occasions that ING was facing severe stress, all the discussion stopped. The focus on individuals stopped. People pulled together as a team. I’ve seen that several times over the years. So when you really threaten ING, the team pulls together. It unites around our Orange Values. It is incredibly impressive to see. It happened so many times.

So we’re good at team work. Where could we do better, you think?

If I want to be balanced there is, on occasion, too much discussion and too much consensus thinking. Sometimes not enough people are prepared to take a decision and put their name against that decision. So to those who are just starting their careers at ING, I would say: It’s a great place to work. Try and not to get sucked into consensus thinking. Be prepared to speak your mind and follow your judgment. And take responsibility.

There must be sad memories too…

There have been a number of times I’ve had to lay people off. I hated doing that. But I sometimes regret not doing it earlier. Both for ING and for the individual. Because it forces you to think about why you’re being let go, what you need to change to adapt to new job requirements, new circumstances. You force people to reinvent themselves. But the look on the person’s face when you tell him is awful, even though it is the right thing for the person. It’s called tough love.

Is there anything that you will particularly miss?

A huge amount. Maybe because of the baptism of four years of intense firefighting to survive. We entered a commercial war zone. We had to fight for our survival. ING is part of me. It is inside of me. I did completely subsume myself into ING. I have to now let her go a bit. My kids poke fun of me. “It’s ING this… ING that, dad! You don’t stop and you don’t notice you say it.”

At some point ING and its values entered my being, became part of me. When I joined, people talked about having orange blood and I thought that was odd, unreal, over the top. Now I understand exactly what orange blood means. I have it.

I’ll never forget. I’ll hold ING in the highest regard for ever.

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