Nicci Sawyer is the Settlements Manager here at Privalgo. In this article, we’ll go through how to build settlements processes from scratch, settling thousands of payments with a small team, and how FinTech can do more to diversify its workforce.
Tell us about your home life. How’s lockdown going?
At home, it’s me and my partner Louis. We had our 20-year anniversary the other day actually — a long time. We’ve got two kids. A 12-year-old and an 8-year-old.
We’ve been fortunate in the lockdown. Everybody’s got their own space. The kids have their own bedrooms and we’ve got a garden.
Before we moved to this current house, we were living in a two-bedroom flat. If we were still living there, that would have been a very different lockdown experience.
But don’t get me wrong, there have been some testing times. Home-schooling was challenging. But generally, it’s been fine.
We were talking about favourites the other day (favourite colour etc.). Someone asked, what’s your favourite year? I said, well definitely not 2020.
My daughter said her favourite year was 2020. ‘We got to play in the garden all year, we didn’t have to go to school.’
In my eyes, if the kids enjoyed it, it’s a successful lockdown.
Has your partner been working from home as well?
Yes, he’s been working from home. Home-schooling would have been impossible if he hadn’t been here.
How have you managed home-schooling? Have the kids been working on the desk with you, or do you let them crack on with it?
During the first lockdown, when everyone thought it was just going to be a couple of weeks, we sort of just left the kids to it.
My eldest is in secondary school, so there’s a certain expectation from his school. He just logged on a did the bare minimum, which was okay. My daughter, who’s younger, needed some hand holding and support.
But this time last year, we really didn’t have the time. My only team member had left, and I was in the middle of recruiting Sunny and Charlie (Settlement Executives). In the midst of this, I had absolutely no time.
Nor did my partner. He works for the Nurse and Midwifery Council. During the first lockdown, they underwent a project where they were trying to bring back retired and ex-nurses into the field. That was huge project that was taking up so much time.
During the second lockdown, there was a lot more expectation from the schools, and my kids needed a lot more support.
Privalgo were brilliant — they were really supportive. I spoke to Richard Chunn (Operations Director), almost in tears. I told him he was going to have to furlough me, I just didn’t have the time.
Rich said the company didn’t need to furlough me — we could work it out. Rich took on a load of my day-to-day tasks. This freed up three to four hours of my time so I could spend that with my kids.
We could then take it in turns. When my diary was free, I could spend time with the kids. Then my partner could do the same when he had time.
So, that’s how we did it. And counted down the days until the schools reopened.
Where did you start out?
I was working at the same FX company the directors were working at. I started there in 2004 in the Settlements Department.
I joined as a Settlements Administrator and I worked my way up to manage that team. Then Privalgo happened and I jumped on board. I’ve been here from the beginning.
So, I’ve been settling FX transactions for 16 years.
You do seem like the busiest person in Privalgo.
It’s such a busy time. I’m playing a large part in some of the company’s big projects.
Although I sit back from the day-to-day Settlements tasks, I do pick up the odd query. I end up guiding the team and giving them ad-hoc training when things come up.
We’re a small team and we’re settling a lot of payments each month. We’re averaging around 16,000 payments each month. That’s a lot between three people.
And I have to approve all those payments. That on its own takes up a fair amount of time.
On top of that, I’m starting to get involved in operational risk. I’ve never done it before, but I volunteered myself for it. I’m always looking to learn.
What I do in settlements is naturally a very risk-adverse process. Therefore, it seemed like a natural step for me to look at risk more formally and start to identify risks around the whole the business, not just in my area.
Is that what you thought it’d be like when you decided to come onboard?
I knew I would have the opportunity to grow and to learn. It was brand-new business with a relatively small team. There was always going to be opportunity to learn so much and soak it all in, outside of settlements.
What were you doing when you started at Privalgo?
Dawn Knaggs (Financial Controller) and I designed our back-office systems together. I created the settlements processes.
In a way, we used a lot of the knowledge from our old company — what to do and what not to do.
We couldn’t reinvent the wheel. When you build settlement systems, there are certain things you just must do. You have to use double entry systems and so on.
But from our experience, we knew what didn’t work well, what caused problems. So, we looked at what we didn’t like about the previous one and built from there. Now, it’s a very different system. It’s a lot more flexible.
Where do you see the payments department going?
The way I see it, we are like a bank. We have an all-singing-all-dancing payments engine that is firing out payments. Our team are only dealing with exceptions.
I really want to see Charlie and Sunny develop in their roles. I don’t want them to sit in the same job for years. I want them to rise through the ranks.
You have a real soft spot for Sunny and Charlie.
Yes, we gel really well. They have a similar work ethic to me. They’re great communicators and great collaborators.
The recruitment process was difficult. I was wondering how I was going to recruit one, let alone two people when I can’t meet them face to face.
But we got lucky. I only interviewed three people. Sunny and Charlie were two of them and I thought they were perfect. And they’ve proven to me that they are.
What does your team look like as we grow?
We will need to grow the team. But I hope it doesn’t need to expand too much.
We’re a FinTech company. We should be able to build the systems to manage it. I want to keep the team at a manageable size. It shouldn’t get out of control.
Has remote working caused a problem?
I wouldn’t say there have been problems. But I would say Sunny and Charlie would have picked up more of the bigger picture. They would have been able to understand what Privalgo are about outside of their own roles.
One good thing about remote working is the training sessions. Usually, the only way to learn from a training session is to take notes and remember things. Now, we’ve been doing these things through Teams, where you can record them.
This means when they come to do tasks, they’re playing the recordings. They’re not making any mistakes, as they have it right there. If it wasn’t for the lockdown, I wouldn’t have thought to record training sessions.
Plus, during normal times I have to leave the office early to do school runs. In lockdown, I didn’t have to do that, so I was able to put in the hours at some of our busiest times. It was great for getting everything done.
What’s been your highlight moment?
I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact moment. This sounds cheesy, but it’s been such a nice journey. We work hard, we play hard. We all get on well.
I’d have to say seeing my team develop and grow makes me happy on a daily basis. I’m really proud of them. For people who’ve never worked in foreign exchange before, to come in during a lockdown and do great work has been amazing to see.
What’s the plan after lockdown? Will you go back to the office full time?
I won’t be in every day. I’m enjoying the fact that I’m here when the kids get back from school. At the moment, I’m planning to come in once or twice a week.
Who is your favourite Privalgo director?
I couldn’t possibly answer that.
This has all been great, thank you Nicci. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
The only thing I’d like to see differently would be more women in the business. I know I had a chance but ended up recruiting two guys. That’s just how it turned out.
However, as we grow, I’d like to see us not only hire more women, but more people from BAME backgrounds. I understand it’s a male-dominated industry, but I think we can do a lot to change that.
I want to get to the point where there’s a fair representation of genders and race on the Board of Directors.
But I feel we can get there. I certainly feel that I have a voice, and I get listened to. I’m not afraid to make a mistake and I can ask for support when I need it.
I think that’s something Privalgo is brilliant at — giving people a voice and listening.