Interviewing Christopher Rodrigues in the week that Bradford & Bingley's preliminary results come out was always going to be a hectic affair but the man seems remarkably calm, despite having been in back-to-back meetings all day.
The relaxed air is also impressive given that the results are something of a mixed bag, with good performances from Mortgage Express (gross new lending up by 70 per cent to £9.9bn) and Charcol (mortgage broking business revenues up by 25 per cent to £70.3m) set against a 29 per cent fall in revenues from the sale of investment products and a flat performance from property services.
But Rodrigues is positive. “I am thrilled with Charcol's performance although it can still get more profitable if we do things more simply.”
But is he happy with the wealth management side of the business? “No, of course not. Middle England has been sitting on their hands when it comes to investing. However, the premium end of things, dealt with by Charcol Holden Meehan and Charcol Aitchison & Colgrave, is still quite robust. It is the old B&B branch network that is down.”
Simplification and cost-cutting seem to be his watchwords. He is determined that simplifying things on the wealth management side will help put it back on track, as it will make products easier and less costly to sell.
He links the boost that Mortgage Express has seen in buy-to-let lending to the fall in investment revenues. “Mortgage Express's buy-to-let boost comes, in part, from the fact that the people who used to invest in equity Isas and bonds are now looking for somewhere more tangible to put their money and are turning to property.”
A mention of the much publicised spat over buy to let between Rodrigues and Barclays' Matt Barrett is greeted with a roll of the eyes. Barrett says buy to let is a risky market to be in but Rodrigues has the opposite opinion, which is predictable given that Mortgage Express is the biggest buy-to-let lender in the country. Rodrigues points out that the Barclays-owned Woolwich is itself heavily involved in the buy-to-let market.
“We do not do high loan-to-value buy-to-let mortgages -22 per cent is typical – and out of the 100,000 buy-to-let loans we have done since 1996, just 30 of these have been repossessed.”
Rodrigues is nothing if not competitive. As a student, he spent two years thrashing the Oxford boat as a Cambridge rower. “They were very fine Oxford crews.” Pause. “We won.”
More than 30 years on, he is still a keen rower but has moved on to a more executive role. “I am in the process of renegotiating the sponsorship and broadcast contracts for the boat race and I am about to take over as the London representative, which basically means chairman of the boat race.”
Bradford & Bingley is looking at how it will model itself after depolarisation. Rodrigues is clear that independent advice will always be provided but says the dilemma is how best to respond to those people who want help buying a product but do not want to pay for full advice.
He admires Tesco, which offers a tied option under its own label and a multi-tied option with the choice of different products at different prices. “The great British public find Tesco a compelling retail model. They can understand how it works. I think the financial services industry has to realise that the retailers might be right in their approach. Can you have your own-label products, a range of different ones and a specialist adviser when it is needed? Absolutely. At B&B we will have people who are capable of doing whatever it takes to serve the customer, whatever the regulation is.”
Is it possible to draw Rodrigues on the much laboured question of a possible purchase of B&B by Barclays? Not likely. Clearly experienced at handling this sort of question, he raps out the standard “no comment on market speculation” response, moving on smoothly to less contentious issues such as consolidation in the IFA market. “I believe more IFAs will end up working for bigger firms. There will be consolidation but whether this is through acquisitions or because some small companies decide to stop operating and instead move to work for a bigger organisation, I do not know. But B&B is interested both in quality firms and good people.”
Rodrigues sees banks offering multi-tie propositions for low-cost investment products such as Isas as he believes the regulatory environment will mean there is not enough revenue in offering lower-value transactions. “Buying products will become just that, buying products. Big banks will not be in the IFA market but everyday consumers will buy everyday investment products from banks offering them a multi-tie choice.”
An upbeat personality, who is saddened by those who see the glass as half-empty, Rodrigues says he is determined to keep on learning. “Some people just cop out. I want to keep on going until the day I am put in a box. My dear granny and her husband went into a home aged 86 and went to see the matron. She said: 'We are new here. Can we help with the old people?' Matron pointed out: 'You are the old people.' Some people go into homes at 65 and switch off. My granny had not and she was 86. I would like to make her proud of me.”
Rodriques says a skiing holiday earlier this year, coupled with a love of cooking, have served to keep him out of trouble. “I am not sure there is actually time for anything else, certainly not this week.” With that, he is off to the next in a seemingly endless line of meetings.
Born: October 1949
Lives: London but has a country house in Gloucestershire
Education: Degree in economics and economic history, Jesus College, Cambridge; MBA with distinction, Harvard Business School (Baker Scholar) Career: 1976 McKinsey, General Foods, Jardine Matheson, Dunlop, American Express; 1979-88 held a number of senior posts in the US and UK for American Express; 1988-96 joined as chief operating officer then became group chief executive at Thomas Cook; 1996-present group chief executive at Bradford & Bingley Career ambition: “I am pretty happy where I am at the moment. As chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, I think I am allowed to be.”
Life ambition: “To keep on learning, to leave the world in a reasonable state for my children” Likes: “People with conviction, who are passionate about things, who make things happen, who see the glass as half-full” Dislikes: “Whingeing minnies, pessimistic people”
Car: Old Range Rover, Lexus