Exploring the contrast between corporate and SME employer

Perceived wisdom in the business community used to be that small companies were simply large companies which had not grown into their skin. That belief system gradually broke down, so that small businesses came to be seen as a different breed requiring different skills and entirely different treatment by government and the financial institutions in particular.

The smaller and medium sized enterprise – the SME – is now fully recognised as a sector of business with its own identity; one operating in a less formal legal and financial framework but making a major contribution to the economy. SMEs generally require a more hands-on approach, with managers and team members having to take a more broadly-based view which calls for a more encompassing skills base.

For that reason, it is accepted that many people who flourish in the culture of a large organisation do not find it easy to adapt to the smaller business environment and vice versa.

Established in a comfort zone

A recent recruit to Trade & Export Finance has made the transition from one of the largest and most respected financial institutions in the UK. The fact that Ben Richards spent twelve years with Barclays Bank might suggest that he felt ‘at home’ in a unit of a large, highly diversified organisation where staff are of necessity focussed on a single area of operations.

We met Ben to learn more about the factors which prompted his move to a classic SME whose business is dedicated to supporting other SMEs across the full spectrum of their activities.

Barclays has a long track record in recruiting college leavers who have taken a vocational route through their qualifications rather than seeking out only high flying academics. It takes the view that aptitude and a good all-round education is often more relevant to most careers in banking than degrees in business studies or economics. With a two-year GNVQ followed by an HND for a further 2 years – both courses were in business – Ben applied to the Trade Operations division of Barclays Bank in Birmingham. He saw the merits of taking up the offer of employment. “After a succession of part-time jobs while studying, the prospect of becoming a full-time ‘workflow operative’ in Trade Operations appealed more for the stability that it provided than the particular challenges of the work I would be doing at that stage.”

As the job title might suggest, Ben Richards’ introduction to the world of finance involved more than an element of repetition: he was scanning documents, inputting data and filing. The team he had joined was involved in supporting the bank’s customers by ensuring that payments were made correctly and on time. By its nature, the work was not customer-facing; distancing somewhat the nature of trade finance from the myriad of importers and exporters who call regularly upon a major banking house to process their international trade transactions.

But it was a no less important role for all that. Part of the responsibility of the team was ensuring that transactions were within the law; that goods and finance were not changing hands with a number of black-listed countries, for example. Myanmar, or Burma as it was still known, was typical of the no-go areas for foreign trade. Helping to prevent fraud through keen observation was a skill that Ben picked up over the years. “With some experience under my belt, I found that forged documentation would stand out a mile!”

The word ‘silo’ is often applied to a major multi-national like Barclays. The company is organised into vertical market functions with minimal interaction between them: teams can spend their whole career in such an organisation without ever encountering operations within another area of the business. As Ben noted, “You acquire a great depth of knowledge of a particular subject but lack the breadth that comes from helping customers across their range of requirements.”

Change of environment

A switch to the Retail Banking sector seemed a good opportunity to experience customers ‘in the round’. Ben applied successfully and was appointed a cashier; a role in which he soon encountered every kind of customer issue; passing on problems to the relevant team member in ‘Retail’.

Ben Richards admits that retail banking did not make a comfortable fit for him, however, and after six months away from trade finance, he was able to move back to his old Division in Birmingham.

Within the short time he had been at the grass roots of banking, there had been elements of re-organisation within Trade Finance. There were more opportunities, for example, to expand his area of responsibility. “My experience broadened quite quickly as a result; I became an accredited On-the-job Trainer, completed the Certified International Trade Advisor (CITA) qualification and led projects to help improve overall performance within my team. Despite this,  I still felt that I was perhaps not progressing as rapidly as I would have wanted to. Increasing my qualifications was one way to progress.”

Ben decided to secure accountancy qualifications which he felt would be relevant to his career development either in Barclays or beyond. Since 2013, he has been studying for the AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) qualification in his spare time. By December 2015, he had achieved the Level 3 Diploma: Level 4 is on the agenda for 2017.

Change of scale rather than direction

With a decade of trade experience and three levels of the AAT qualification under his belt, the time seemed right for Ben to take his career on a further step by seeking employment outside the Bank. Through a recruitment agency, he was introduced to Trade & Export Finance which was seeking additional staff to support a growing customer base.

“It was immediately obvious that TAEFL was very different kind of organisation from a large bank. The selection process, for example, focussed as much on my interests and what I could contribute in the broadest sense as it did on my trade finance experience with Barclays.

“That culture runs through the organisation. People are friendly and genuinely want to know about you and give you support. I have not ceased to be impressed with the extent to which we are able to hand-hold the client every step of the way.”

Those positive comments apart, how has Ben been able to accommodate the change from a ‘silo’ within an international bank to a team numbering fewer than twenty, where every process impacts directly on the success of a client? “I feel very much at home here. I enjoy coming to work each morning, because I know there is a customer behind every single transaction, and I am helping them run their business. People can see what you are doing for the company, and it does not go unnoticed!”

Above: Ben Richards in conference with Account Manager colleagues Ellie Grice and Natalie Tran.

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