José Luiz Rossi, managing director for Experian UK and Ireland, describes to Marcel Le Gouais the experience of running a business with over 3,500 staff through a once-in-a century event.
MLG: The first obvious question; how has it been as the managing director of a company the size of Experian in the UK and Ireland, during a pandemic? Especially as it all unfolded very soon after you took the role.
JLR: "It’s been a unique experience. I was in the UK for several meetings in March of last year, but when I came back to Brazil, around 15 March, countries were starting to close. So, by the time I started leading the business, in April, we were already in that extraordinary situation and I couldn’t return to the UK.
“I started managing the team but couldn’t meet them in person anymore. We had to help the whole company get set up to work from home and we had lots of meetings to make that happen, we had to get the infrastructure right. We have people who work in high security areas, so we had specific protocols for them. The whole nature of doing business, running meetings, and talking to clients, it all had to change, but humans are masters of adaptation.
“It took us a few months to get there but at the end of the first quarter for us, the end of the half-year period in 2020, we were working remotely with no problems.
MLG: It was a bizarre time for our entire industry between 20 March and the end of June, how did you cope?
JLR: One thing is for sure is that the capacity of human beings to adapt is fantastic. We’ve all had to reinvent ourselves. When the lockdown came it was new for everybody and everybody was learning. Our clients and consumers too, so there was more acceptance of trial and error. In those early days we had many unknowns to overcome.
“A big one was the question about whether this would this be similar to the experience of the financial collapse in 2008? Now we know, it’s totally different. People didn’t know how long term the recession would be, or what it would like, but they knew it would come.”
MLG: In the age of remote working, is it an ongoing challenge to retain company culture and morale, when some employees may feel isolated?
JLR: “So, firstly, we need to recognise that certain things will be different now and forever. 18 months ago, if I was late for a meeting and I needed to get across London to see a client, I’d never have called that client to say ‘can we do it as an online Team’s meeting instead?’ That may have sounded disrespectful.
“But from now on, for 30-minute meetings, people are not going to be crossing cities to do this. So, the use of digital communications tools to meet with clients, business partners and engage with employees has already changed the way we work beyond all recognition.
“Then the question of culture arises. If you have an environment where everybody wants to move to remote working, naturally you think - how do we keep our culture? But then you see examples of other companies with strong cultures, like PwC, where most of the time their staff are out with clients. Even without that daily office environment, they’re able to keep a strong culture.
“Every company will need to find their own way, but we have adapted to remote working very well and we will certainly be keeping that option there for our teams, moving forwards, while maintaining spaces where we can all connect in person too. The best of both worlds.”
MLG: How will other processes like recruitment change?
JLR: “There will be a significant difference in how you look for talent. We would never previously hire anybody without a face-to-face meeting. In the last year, we have done lots of hiring without face-to-face, in person contact.
“We’ve all discovered - not just at Experian but everywhere - that we can run our business just as well by remote and that changes things when you are looking to hire talent. We can consider candidates from different locations, because where you are doesn’t matter so much as it did. People will live in different places with different costs of living. It will be a totally different environment for talent management.”
MLG: In terms of strategic lessons, if any, what do you think has been learned about operational agility?
JLR: “When we talk about a disaster recovery situation now, if something occurs like a fire in one of our installations, and everybody needs to work for home – well, we’ve just done that for a year, so no problem. The pandemic has made the business much more resilient in a short time. There were many lessons learned and we became much stronger as a company in operational terms. It was not only us, the whole system became stronger.”
"Everybody has their own financial life. If a lender always has the same view that you have about your financial situation, decisions would be much easier. The problem is that kind of transparency is not always there"
MLG: Moving to a different topic, which is financial education. We’ve worked on the Credit Awareness Week campaign with Experian, where the aim has been for consumers to understand their credit information, and what it determines for them. You’ve led similar educational projects in Brazil, tell us about those.
JLR: “Obviously, the approach in Brazil and the UK have some similarities, but there are also big differences. Brazil is a country of continental dimensions and to reach every part of the country, where there are different access levels to the internet, to promote credit education in those regions we needed a completely different strategy to the one we used in urban areas. In distant regions from large centres, we had a bus that would go from city to city, spending a week at a time in 52 different cities per year. We even had to use a boat up and down the Amazon river too.
“We took it to places where local people could learn about their financial situation. We would explain how to navigate financial systems and sometimes help them negotiate overdue debt.
“We have the Credit Awareness Week campaign here in the UK which has the same philosophy. It’s just a different way of approaching the same issue, adapting to the circumstances of different countries. This is the beauty of it. At Experian we are committed to improving people’s financial health. We apply this principle in every single country that we operate in. I feel very proud of this purpose.”
Experian’s educational programme involved outreach work with communities in the Amazon region
MLG: Through the Credit Awareness Week campaign that we’ve worked on with Experian, there has been an incremental rise among consumers of understanding what their credit score determines for them, but there’s still a few people out there who have no idea.
JLR: “The biggest issue in this industry is what I call ‘symmetry’. Everybody has their own financial life. If a lender always has the same view that you have about your financial situation, decisions would be much easier. The problem is that kind of transparency is not always there. That’s why we work hard on helping people understand the credit system, including the relevance of their credit score, to give them the best chance of achieving their financial goals.
"We have always advocated more transparency in the credit system. And financial education is part of the solution – it helps people and growing businesses to make more sustainable choices, even if the economy around them becomes more challenging. “
MLG: This leads us to Experian Boost. For consumers, with Experian Boost, there’s only an upside for them to share their information. What can you tell us about early adoption?
JLR: “We already have more than 500,000 people signed up for Boost since our launch in late October 2020, which is great, and most who sign up get an increase on their credit score of around 50 points. We think Experian Boost is a real game changer for the industry. It’s important that lenders recognise how to use this new information so that they can get a more intuitive understanding of their customers’ affordability and make more informed credit decisions.
“There’s no doubt that consumer contributed data, like that made available via Experian Boost, gives lenders a better view of affordability. Early take-up is really encouraging, and we’ve found that the product has been well received by younger people. They are engaging with their credit score early in their lives and taking control of their financial data. That’s really good to see.”