Cards fall into place for director
Neil Gardner became director of cards business for Citibank’s global consumer group in late 2007. In doing so, he assumed a diverse portfolio with responsibility for business strategy, sales and marketing, and product development, which includes reward programmes and co-branding initiatives. His 300-strong team handles everything from telemarketing to signing up new merchants, and recently oversaw the launch of the first credit card in Hong Kong with an Octopus function. Having worked previously for ANZ Bank in Australia and GE Money in China, Gardner counts himself lucky to have found his niche in a sector that keeps evolving. He talks to John Cremer.
How did you find your way into the credit card business?
Coming out of university, I had no real career aspirations and no idea what to do. Because I had a degree in mathematics and computing, I kind of fell into a job with a consulting company involved with IT and programming credit card software. The role itself left me completely unfulfilled, but I enjoyed the business part of it and was keen to learn more. I’m still grateful to Marks & Spencer in Britain for taking a chance on me by offering a job in their financial services business. There, I also learned about marketing, analytics, customer feedback, and the need to be creative and consumer-oriented, so there was a real skill set progression. Subsequently, I went into credit card operations with a bank and have been in the sector ever since.
What are the specific challenges you face in Hong Kong?
This is definitely one of the most competitive credit card markets anywhere in the world. It is relatively small, but has highly aware consumers, so it is a real street fight to get market share and then keep it. If you think you are good at this business, it really is the place to test yourself. Someone is always coming along with another product or rewards programme, so there is constant pressure for new ideas to generate revenue. Because there aren’t significant numbers of new customers coming through the door, you have to keep innovating with general rewards, travel products, cash back offers or partner benefits to fit the different market segments. Fortunately, Citi are the largest credit card issuer in the Asia-Pacific region, so there is no better company to do it with.
What characterises your personal style of management?
I spent 10 years working in the UK and about five in Australia, so compared to other people in our business, I’ve got a more western approach to management. I prefer an open style of communication and like to empower my team. In my view, people are hired to do a job, so while I push my agenda and will coach them, I don’t want to sign off on every decision they make. I think the team here appreciates that I give them some space plus the freedom to “make mistakes” and develop. Also, I strongly believe that a quick meeting is a good meeting. If you take people away from their “day job”, there should be an explicit purpose, so I very much advocate they just pop their head around the door or update me on the fly.
What is the secret to keeping younger staff engaged?
If you take a one-size-fits-all approach, it will not motivate or engage. You have to be pragmatic, but open to new ideas and to doing things differently.
We are all in a people business, so feedback is very important. You also have to remember that today’s Generation Y employees tend to want to move faster. They are very committed and very goal-oriented, but should realise that traditional employers want someone to be skilled at one level before moving them on to the next.
How do you achieve a sensible work-life balance?
You can’t always have hard and fast rules, but I tend to get in earlier than most colleagues – between 7.30 and 8am – and try to leave on time at least two nights a week to be sure of seeing my kids. To keep fit, I play indoor soccer on Monday nights, a bit of golf, and some tennis, which is also good for the social side. In general, I feel employees should be trusted to manage their own work-life balance, provided they do it well and achieve their objectives at work.
What advice do you give to job seekers and junior executives?
When you are young, it’s often hard to know which direction to take. I see a lot for people choosing jobs for the money, but it is much better to find something you love and an employer who can empower you to be the kind of individual you want to be. Since most of us spend such a significant amount of time at work, it is important to enjoy what you do. Therefore, it pays to do your homework to make sure the role, the company’s values and the organisational culture are right for you. If they are, it makes it a lot easier to come to work every day.
- Recommends having a network of contacts to bounce ideas off and tap for advice
- Convenes a monthly meeting of functional heads to prevent silos or “little empires” developing
- As a personal gesture, sends hand-written notes to thank staff for good work
- Makes himself aware of the boss’s agenda to offer effective support