Interview with Vernon Hill

We talk to the US banking mogul about entrepreneurialism, carving a niche in British banking and contrarianism

May 26, 2016
Vernon Hill, Metro Bank, City University, Cass Business School
Source: Jim Graham

Vernon Hill is an entrepreneur and businessman. After studying at the University of Pennsylvania, he founded a real estate firm that helped to find and develop sites for McDonald’s. His experiences led him to enter the banking world where he set up Commerce Bank, which he sold in 2007. He founded Metro Bank in the UK in 2010, the first challenger bank in the UK for more than 150 years. In March, he was appointed honorary visiting professor of practice in retail banking at City University’s Cass Business School.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in August 1945 in San Francisco, but I was raised in northern Virginia, which is suburban Washington [DC].

How has this shaped you?
It made me want to get out of suburban Washington. It was a city dominated by the US government. I left there and went to the Wharton School in 1963, and I graduated in 1967. And that certainly shaped my life. I worked full time while I went to college. I’m an entrepreneur, my father had raised me that way, and certainly my own experience drove that.

What were your reactions when you were offered the position at Cass?
I’d done a couple of talks to Cass students and I liked the whole environment: it’s very entrepreneurial, it’s in London, and I was very pleased when they offered me this position. 

What do you hope to achieve in your role?
My philosophy about students in these schools [is] everybody has a unique gift or talent. Great chefs taste the food differently to how you and I do, great musicians hear the music differently to how you and I do. If people learn what their unique talent is and learn to match it up with what they do in life, they have a very good chance of being a star.

Could you see yourself becoming an academic if you take to working with students and scholars?
No, ha ha. I’m an entrepreneur, which means I like to create things, build things, make things happen.

Was setting up Metro Bank a daunting task?
This was the fifth new bank I’ve done from scratch, and it was no harder in Britain than it was in America. There is a philosophical difference between entrepreneurs in America and entrepreneurs in Britain. Generally, with exceptions to everything, the American model is: let’s start with the result and work backwards to figure out how to get there. The British business model, historically, has been: let’s start at the beginning and see what comes out at the end. 

How do British banking customers compare with your native North Americans?
You’ve got five banks and they’ve run a cartel for years: they have underserved, overcharged and massively underinvested in the business, and they operate under the theory that they’re doing you a favour by letting you bank with them. It’s a business where the banks are hated by the customers, the government and the press. I don’t have to convince Brits that their current banks are bad. They all know their banks are bad. 

You credit the ‘shadow banking system’ as largely responsible for the global financial crisis. Why did you think this, and do you still hold these views?
That’s more in America than in Britain. These were, and are, sophisticated, large financial businesses not subject to the usual reviews and controls that a bank would be. I’m not saying they’re good or bad, but at the time of the crash they were out of control.

Are you going to tell students that with a leap of faith they can set up their own bank?
No, I’m not going to be talking about banking. I’ll talk about what makes a great brand. How do you create a great brand, because that creates great value. A differentiated, value-added model, that’s the most important thing. When you’ve built a culture to match and reinforce your model [then] you fanatically execute it. 

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
The day they handed me my degree, and I left. I really didn’t have a university experience. I worked full time when I went to university, so I participated in nothing. I wanted to learn, get a degree and start making money.

What has changed most in global higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Well, it’s incredibly expensive. And universities, with very few exceptions, are incredibly liberal. And we pay them an incredible amount of money to teach kids left-wing ideas.

And you don’t like that? Why?
Universities in America have become anti-business, anti-free market. These universities are supported by people who have succeeded in a free market society. Harvard has a $30bn endowment. It raised that through people who succeeded in a free market environment. It does make me wonder why they are so opposed to a free market world.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Decide what you want to do, get your head down and start doing it, and work out the problems as you go along.

You have been dubbed ‘flamboyant, tradition-stomping American billionaire…the P.T. Barnum of banking’ but also someone who ‘pushed the ethical envelope’ and is ‘contrarian’. How do you view yourself?
The ethical boundary I don’t think is true at all. You can’t run a big bank and push the ethical boundaries. I certainly wouldn’t have got a banking licence in Britain if that were true. But if you take out that sentence and leave the word “contrarian”, that’s not too far off the truth.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com


Appointments

Craig Marsh has been appointed pro vice-chancellor for international partnerships and director of the Lincoln International Business School at the University of Lincoln. Dr Marsh joins the university from Laureate Online Education where he was most recently vice-president of academic innovation. He has more than 25 years’ experience in academic, senior commercial and consultancy roles. In his newly created role, he will lead the establishment of Lincoln’s business school as the fourth academic college, alongside the existing colleges of arts, science and social science. “Lincoln seems to be such a dynamic and ambitious place and I detect that it is very strongly driven by its values,” he said. “It is creating its own history, and that is very appealing to me.”

Jennifer Watling has joined Manchester Metropolitan University as pro vice-chancellor international. Professor Watling, who takes up her post on 1 September, is currently associate dean for research and innovation in health and life sciences at Northumbria University. She has previously held senior roles at the University of Adelaide, including associate dean international, associate dean research, and head of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. As associate dean international, she developed and built a portfolio of international relationships with partners across Asia, the US and Australia. “I am very excited by the opportunity this role gives me to lead the development of Manchester Met’s international standing in both research and education,” she said.

Durham University has appointed Jane Robinson as its new chief operating officer. She takes up her position in September. Roxane Permar has been appointed the title of reader by the University of the Highlands and Islands. Ms Permar is a lecturer at Shetland College, part of UHI. Amanda Kenny has been appointed a visiting professor at Bishop Grosseteste University. Professor Kenny is professor of rural and regional nursing at La Trobe University.

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