UK: Interview: Fahrin Ribeiro

Last Updated: 28 August 2019
Article by Sonia Sharma

The UK Company Secretary for Bank of Ireland UK speaks about reporting requirements, the company secretary role and her time at the ICSA Annual Conference 2019

At the ICSA Annual Conference: The Future Board in July 2019, Fahrin Ribeiro was on a panel entitled 'creating a longer-term view in reporting'. "I believe consumers and employees today want to feel more connected with the companies they engage with and work for" she says.

An experienced company secretary, having built a career in financial services, Fahrin is currently the UK company secretary for Bank of Ireland UK plc, a wholly owned but highly regulated subsidiary bank of the Bank of Ireland Group plc, established in 1783 by Royal Charter in Ireland and a traditional, publicly listed, relationship-driven retail and commercial bank. 

Beginning her company secretarial career at Addleshaw Goddard LLP, Fahrin has worked at both large listed FTSE 100 organisations, as well as regulated subsidiaries such as Aviva Asia, Bank of Ireland and Santander. We spoke to Fahrin about the challenges companies are facing, and her thoughts on the progress being made to improve diversity and inclusion at the top of organisations.

At the ICSA conference you were on a panel that focused on 'creating a longer-term view in reporting'. As regulators, investors, governments and the public call on companies to more effectively articulate their purpose, what improvements have you seen over the past few years? Are companies rising up to the challenge of communicating key messages to stakeholders?

As the board is required to spend more time discussing its company's purpose, so too has management had to spend time understanding and articulating it. I find there have certainly been increased efforts by companies to articulate their purpose, even though sometimes the efforts fall a little short of expectations, for example when companies describe their purpose in a way that means little to both employees and customers.

At the conference, the panel discussed a company that had articulated its purpose was 'to inspire the human spirit' which would be somewhat difficult to get behind, and to actively connect with what the company does. We also discussed that, as a company evolves, its purpose could change, and therein lies the role of the board – to continually evaluate and review the purpose and to ensure that management articulates it as clearly as possible so that stakeholders can make a connection with it.

A lot of companies have woken up to the fact that their customers and employees are increasingly seeking a connection to the companies they buy from and work for. They want their values to resonate. For companies that are able to articulate a purpose that staff and customers believe and want to be a part of, this will create a significant competitive advantage. I think a great example of an effective purpose is that of Tesla: 'to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy'. While it is currently a car company, and the clever use of the word 'accelerate' points to that, Tesla's purpose is something much bigger and a very easy one to want to get behind and support.

Recent updates to the UK Corporate Governance Code and company law include requirements for companies to report on the areas of their values and culture. What are some of the developments that you have observed?

Boards have had to spend more time and attention on these areas than ever before. Initially, ideas such as culture and values can sometimes put the board off spending valuable time on them at meetings as they appear qualitative and have no KPIs or metrics associated with them in order for boards to measure them against. However, with time, as more attention is paid to these ideas around boardroom tables, metrics and KPIs begin to develop and boards then become more engaged.

This increases management focus on these concepts as management expects to carry out the work to understand what the company's values actually are, articulate them, and be challenged by the board on them. In time, by shining a spotlight on these concepts, issues can crystallise and management is able to take action to rectify them. In short, it is a hugely positive movement as I believe consumers and employees today want to feel more in sync with the companies they engage with, and if a company's values resonate with individual values, that ultimately will drive better performance.

Values such as 'daring to be different', 'togetherness and enthusiasm', and 'constant desire for renewal' – the values of IKEA – can harness employee engagement and enthusiasm and result in much higher productivity and loyalty. However, like its purpose, a company's values will also evolve as its business evolves, otherwise it could end up with a competitive disadvantage. I do not see this issue moving away from the board table any time soon.

How would you describe the culture at Bank of Ireland?

I have always found the culture at Bank of Ireland to be supportive, friendly, warm and most importantly, customer centric. It has been a great staff retention factor for the company and has driven relatively high happiness levels and engagement over the years. In announcing the Group's results the Group CEO acknowledged that the Group's customer centric culture was not just a 'nice to have'; it was a commercial imperative because good culture attracts and retains the talent that the Group needs to do business. The Bank of Ireland Group is currently going through a number of changes as part of a wider transformation agenda, and in promoting a customer centric culture, management is reducing the Group's risks and continuing to build strong customer loyalty.

What are some of the key challenges that you face as company secretary for Bank of Ireland UK and what are some of the core aspects that you are responsible for?

Like the company secretary of any other retail bank, I think one of the key challenges is balancing expectations of all stakeholders and keeping up with the pace of changing regulations, legislation, board expectations and funnily enough, my own developing expectations. It makes for a very interesting environment as you are continuously pushed to develop and deal with different ways of working, a changing political and business landscape, and different regulatory and legal guidelines.

One of the core aspects that I am responsible for, which I find very interesting, is keeping up with changing regulation and legislation, identifying those that could impact my board and ensuring the nomination committee (which in my organisation is responsible for keeping up with corporate governance developments) is kept apprised of the relevant developments. In the last two to three years, this has been extraordinary as we have had virtually unforeseen developments politically and the business has had to think on its feet and try to predict things that are simply not possible to predict any more. Brexit has been an interesting case in point. There came a point where there was simply no point in preparing papers in advance of board meetings for me to circulate because any report would undoubtedly become outdated within a day or two. For a company secretary, this is an unusual but completely understandable approach, and I have had to keep up with the board's expectations as the level, nature and frequency of information flow has evolved.

What are your thoughts on the progress made to improving diversity and inclusion at the top of companies?

I do believe that what gets reported gets measured, and what gets measured gets done. I think it is important to shine a light on the relatively poor levels of diversity at the tops of large companies. I know financial regulators across Europe are very focused on this point and are pushing boards to think more inclusively to reflect the demographics of their customers and the populations that companies operate in. However, there is still a way to go before boards and executive committees reflect the diversity of their staff and customer bases, and I do believe that there is a critical role for boards to play by increasing their own levels of challenge on the issue.

A recent report I read made a case that the dependence by some companies on digitally powered recruitment tools – the very tools that have learned human processes and biases – has played a part in excluding diverse talent within pipelines from junior levels through to management, by repeating and multiplying what we all know have been, for a large part, unconsciously biased processes to date.

Another example is that of digital assistants such as Alexa. A lot of these 'assistants' have female names. I wonder if more diverse boards and management teams might have picked up on the long term consumer behavioural implications of something as simple as enabling large parts of the country's population to make demands on, or order, around a name or a voice that just happens to be female.

That said, recent reporting developments are certainly a step in the right direction, and are necessary. As I mentioned before, what gets reported gets measured, and ultimately the positive change should follow. 

Interview by Sonia Sharma, Editor of Governance and Compliance

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