It’s not very often that you get to enjoy the company of a CEO who is happy to be truly honest. This week, and for the rest of lockdown I have been given no holds barred access to one of FX’s superstars. Dan Biggs, CEO of Privalgo, has over 16 years of industry experience and has worked in every facet of the sector.
Calm and calculated, Dan took the time to answer my questions and allow a true insight into how this pandemic has affected him on a personal level, Privalgo as a business and tells me how a company, which is little older than a start-up, has navigated its way through such turbulent times.
I joined Dan, virtually, at his home in Essex, where I am instantly welcomed by a smile and a “how are you?”
Hi Daniel, we are chatting in the midst of a global pandemic; did you ever think it was going to get this bad?
“I actually remember this really well” Dan smirked. “As a company we often spend time debating such things as the economy, world news and socioeconomic situations. John Hallahan, one of our relationship managers reported an infectious pneumonia breakout in Wuhan to the business in a big way in December 2019, which was named COVID-19 . He talked about the rate of infection and the issues it could cause. I am not proud of this; I did dismiss this as being a type of ‘SARS’ like virus that would be controlled and unlikely to spread in the way it has”.
What happened next?
“The next thing that I recall was that someone had come back from the Alps and the news was starting to gain traction that UK infections were increasing , it had just become closer to home. It was at this point we thought we should consider the potential impact on the business”.
When did you actually start planning as a company?
“We started talking meaningfully about coronavirus in February 2020”.
Was that ahead of the curve? In the West we seemed slow to respond?
“Even though it was a public health emergency, I didn’t really think it would affect everyone. You think maybe the world will go on and it won’t affect me”.
“You start thinking what precautions you might need to take, all the while thinking that the world will likely go on without much disruption. How wrong we were” Dan smiled. “I don’t think I or anyone else could have imagined what a national lockdown would mean. This will have a huge effect on all our lifetimes and carry on changing the world as we knew it”.
On the 23rd of March, Boris took to the podium and announced the lockdown, do you remember where you were?
“If I recall”, pondered Dan. “Boris held a press conference on March 20th in which retail and hospitality were to close and a suggestion that more action may need to be taken. So, short after this statement the Directors and I, held a meeting with the Senior management and between us we decided to call it a day and shut the office down with immediate effect. I took the staff for a quick drink and that was officially our last day in the office”.
Do you think you realised the impact of this, or had you already processed this?
“I remember thinking I need to be constructive. The impact it was going to have on thier lives was a concern to everyone in the company. I wasn’t thinking about the business specifically at that point. I just remember being hugely concerned about our future and how I could be there for the people who had supported me”.
There have been so many stories of people giving up. The obvious human reaction of fight or flight, when did you decide to fight, and did you hesitate?
“I have my own ambitions and passions for the business, but the choices weren’t made by me, they were made by everyone else’s reactions to the situation”.
“The view was clear, ‘we are going to make this work’, ‘it will be good’, ‘we will adapt’, ‘It will be better for us’”, Dan seemed a little overwhelmed by this.
“When you have that sort of sentiment from people behind you, there is no other choice to be made, this business means a lot to me, but it also means a lot to the other people that sail on the ship and everyone played their part”.
“They were looking for guidance and leadership and my responsibility was to ensure that happened. The team reacted immensely well to what is and was an entirely new environment”.
Privalgo is a fintech company so who do you think was under the most amount of pressure?
A huge smile spreads across Dan’s face, chuckling, “Well, we are a fintech company and we were just about to be tested as to whether fintech was actually something we could deliver”
“I am sure our tech department and Richard (Richard Chunn, Director and Head of Technology) were having a bit of a sweat”, he said laughing.
“They had prepared us that we could operate our business entirely virtually and that came across instantly. It wasn’t that we spent lots of time talking about infrastructure, we decided that we could and would operate virtually, but the challenge was how do we best coordinate ourselves, how do we get the best out of our people and the business and finally how do we maintain focus.”
“The tech element was massive, but the settlements team, the back end of our business, they were under the most pressure. They had to get it to work well, when we weren’t actually together, and they did it brilliantly”.
So, the investment in tech was the right investment to take?
“The philosophy of the tech was the right thing to do. Richard was adamant that we needed to be cloud based, we needed to be location agnostic and that we needed to be able to work from a remote environment. Prior to lockdown we had already developed the ability to work remotely with some of the staff having never stepped foot in the office”.
“We are lucky, because we had a blank canvas to paint from. The philosophy of being able to build a business that can be completely flexible was the right one in hindsight, and obviously one we are glad we chose.
Has this been your hardest challenge to date?
“Obviously the circumstances have been tough, the business has performed very well through what has been a difficult time for other companies and sectors”.
“The initial shock was tough and the way that people, our people adapted to it, was my highlight of 2020”.
“What is now tough, is how the market, the situation and our working environment will develop in the future. When everyone is in the same boat, you have a real collective focus. As life resumes to some form of normality, we are going to have to try and get the balance of maintaining relationships with our peers, being inclusive, the soft fuzzy stuff that makes a nice working environment, being there for our clients and communicating across all areas of the business, while still maintaining the flexibility and remote working that much of our team have become accustomed to. That is almost as daunting as the news of a lockdown, how do you plan, when we don’t entirely know what the situation will look like in the future? We can make some best guesses, but this is my area of greatest concern”.
“This is by far, 100% the biggest challenge that I have faced in my professional life. But that being said, I am proud of the way the business and the people have reacted to it. Out of what has been difficult will come good learning and another experience that we can take and say, ‘this is how we did it”.
Do you think this has made you stand out from the crowd as a leader?
“I honestly believe that it is for everyone else to decide, I should be judged by those I am trying to lead”.
“I am proud of the way the business has responded, rowing this boat is a joint effort, if everyone believes we took the right course of action, that we have done the right things and that they feel supported then maybe I would take a little pat on the back”.
We successfully came out of lockdown 1.0 and into lockdown 2.0. A lot has changed with the business. What have you done differently in the second lockdown?
“During the first lockdown, we spoke to the team to try and understand what are the positives we can take from this? I wanted to understand what they would take from, keep or change about the experience. Instantly, what became clear, was they wanted to keep the autonomy around their working environment. The team also wanted clear direction on where the business was going and their participation in the business” Dan paused and seemed to take stock for a minute.
“We broke down what we wanted to achieve into long, medium and short-term objectives. We allocated these objectives across the business. Not just in revenue generation, but also how do we develop our people? How do we develop our system? How do we develop our brand?”.
“Once we had communicated the why, the when and the how we set about achieving these goals. We then made it clear their location of work was irrelevant as long as we maintained a focus on good communication and collaboration”.
“We wanted to ensure our objectives were achieved to the best of our ability, in a timely manner and they developed the individual as much as they developed the business”.
“Once we had settled on the flexible working environment, it became the team’s choice as and when they wished to come to the office once we came out of lockdown. The team quickly adapted to working remotely over our cloud platform or physically if they wished to use the Eastcheap office. The announcement of lockdown 2.0 caused very little concern as we have worked so well in a virtual environment”.
“I make it a priority to make sure that the team are aware of each other, communication is key and although we have lost the physical contact of the office, it is paramount that we are there for each other”.
“It’s critical that we learn from this situation and develop, we need to process how things can be done differently to achieve the things we are missing from our day to day environment, physical interaction is extremely hard to replace.”.
Do you think you have worked harder through these periods of lockdown?
“My role as CEO dictates that I am reactive to company requirements and proactive to company development. Often in our planning and development meetings, we discuss what we want to achieve and combine that with how we intend to communicate. We then delegate the plan across the team. How well the team progresses with our joint goals orientates the time I then have and where my next efforts should be focused”.
“I am extremely conscious of other people’s time, maybe because I am so aware of my own. It is important to recognise that you may become a burden and cause someone to be ineffective if you overladen them with tasks. I make a point of understanding the distribution of work and then I can manage my own expectations and workload”.
What is your most important consideration?
“Communication”. “I have made it a point of priority to ensure that I communicate with the business as often as I can, I don’t really see this as work, but I do see this as a really important part of my role. I will not turn off if the business needs me, and I am willing to do whatever needs to be done.
Do you think you will emerge a stronger CEO?
“Leadership has definitely been an enhanced requirement through this. I have constantly reminded myself that people are looking for leadership and direction. I constantly ask myself, am I doing enough? Am I providing the right narrative for the direction of the business”?
“By default, I think I will emerge a stronger CEO, this role is a responsibility and that should not be neglected. I am committed to providing leadership and direction.”.
What have you learnt?
“To listen, I think that is the most important part of this job role”.
Who has inspired or driven you?
“There have been a few people actually”, taking a moment Dan explained, “We all know that social media is sometimes a dangerous thing. During the pandemic, for me, it’s been quite informative, I have seen how other business leaders interact with their teams”.
“Bernard Looney was appointed the CEO of BP in February 2020 and if there is any industry that has had massive issues to deal with through the pandemic, it is definitely the energy sector. I think he has done a fantastic job. That is a business that has had significant challenges. He has shown terrific empathy, demonstrated fantastic communication skills internally and to the wider word”.
“I have also been encouraged by my family to respond well to the situation and in times of need they are always there”.
“My true inspiration though has been the team. When you are surrounded by people who all have the motivation to get up and go then the decision to drive forward is much, much easier”.
Privalgo is a company that is dedicated to making a difference in a static industry. They are trying to innovate through technology and evolve through service. After spending my first session with Dan, I can see that this CEO is a force to be reckoned with and the internal following that he has created is inspirational.
It has been a pleasure to talk through the issues of a pandemic with a logical thinking, open and honest CEO. With this type of leadership it’s no wonder Privalgo is going from strength to strength.
If you would like to understand how Privalgo’s services could help your Business or simply assist in a foreign exchange transfer, please follow the link below or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Join me next week for more Lockdown CEO. Please look out for the next live Podcast with Privalgo.