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CIO interview: Jonathan Vardon at Provident Financial Group

Photo 3 - seated

Adjacent to Bradford’s imposing Wool Exchange in the centre of the city is a modern office that is home to a financial services business; the industry that the UK is best known for today. Just as the UK’s initial wealth was built on the backs of sheep and cities like Bradford became powerhouses; today access to credit is the wool that insulates the nation. Provident Financial has three core banking areas and brands, credit cards, car loans and consumer credit.

Jonathan Vardon joined Provident in February 2016, returning to financial services having led central functions IT at Lloyds in 2010. Joining Provident was a return to the CIO fold having been vendor side for two years – Vardon had been CIO of pharmacy retailer Boots and The Cooperative Digital.

“Home credit is the most misunderstood part of the business,” Vardon explains of the Provident business. “Our company’s founding purpose was to “Lend a helping hand when others don’t”.  We provide credit and financial services to customers who would not be accepted by high street banks. This remains unchanged since 1880. We provide credit and financial services to customers who would not be accepted by high street banks.             

“We provide loans with no fees or unexpected costs. The price agreed upfront is the price customers pay. There are no ‘add ons’ whatsoever. No fees for late payments, missed payments.   This ensures our customers have affordable weekly repayments and helps to manage their finances – our customers have little leeway in income.

Our service has driven high levels of customer satisfaction. But Provident has not stood still. Technology in the field means instant lending decisions and a best in class customer experience,” Vardon says in his office facing the Wool Exchange.

With retailer Brighthouse looking closely at its technology strategy and the growth of Provident it is perhaps indicative of the UK’s economy and society that organisations that specialise in providing financial services to those the minority Prime Minister calls “just about managing” are on the ascendency.

Vardon was hired to lead a transformation of the technology at Provident which in turn is leading to a transformation in the way the organisation operates. On Vardon’s office wall is a simple and effective infographic that explains the three phases of his plan: build, breakout and breakthrough.

“These three simple concepts have to make the business simpler, faster and better. If something doesn’t do that, then stop it,” Vardon says.

“I think the organisation had under invested in technology and change and therefore we had a legacy estate,” he says. Adding that business innovations such as the launch of the Satsuma online short term loans business meant the organisation was keen to get to market, but had not considered the issues of scale. “We had capability problems with delivery not being particularly good,” he says. Vardon has scaled up his leadership team to help hiring Nic Merriman as the new CTO; a head of digital and a head of delivery to help his department “keep their promises”. Vardon has 280 people in IT and is responsible for the organisation’s property portfolio – he was managing the expansion into the next door office at our spring meeting.

Leeds is just a few miles down the road and Manchester across the Pennines, both cities are experiencing a technology boom with major organisations forming hubs close to their canals, but Vardon says Bradford will not be left behind and he’s upbeat about recruitment having secured talent away from roles in London, Derby and Nottingham.

“I think if you have good story to tell and a great culture people will be attracted to your organisation and you have to accept that people will move on,” he says adding that with Anna Barsby at Morrisons, Kevin Evans at Sun Branding Solutions and Yorkshire Bank having major establishments in the Bradford alongside its University the city has a wealth of opportunity.

“You’d expect a business over 135 years to have legacy IT and Provident has its share,” he says. Since joining Vardon and his team have undertaken a three-step strategy to stabilise current systems, invest in infrastructure and systems to create market-leading apps and finally to break through accepted ways of working.

A year into the strategy and Vardon and team’s focus has been to take control of costs, risks, service and delivery and minimise incidents and outages to keep the business trading across its newly rolled out apps and decisioning platforms.

Vardon says this was essential to enable the breakout element of his three steps, which he says is about a new way of operating.

Satsuma, the online lending business, is operating with a sprint based model, Vardon’s team has also moved the traditional project delivery capability in the Provident brand to a regular frequent release cycle which is driving discipline, supported by a drive on automation in environments and testing. The Satsuma business has also benefited from a number of improvements recently which has seen the business grow by 50% year-on-year, including new login functionality, credit decisioning systems, SEO improvements, funnel management and the launch of the new mobile app for existing customers.  Satsuma is the first in the UK’s non-standard market to have a native app, enabling customers to check their details including balance or next payment date, see if they’re eligible for another loan and apply, check their Satsuma smart score and make a catch up payment.  All with a view to engaging customers online and supporting them on a path to cheaper affordable lending. Feedback from customers on login and the app has been incredibly positive and there have been over 11,500 app downloads already.

The second and third stage of Vardon’s strategy that is already well underway is a shift to an API-driven SOA with cloud -based solutions to improve speed to market, cost, reliability and scalability.  This is going hand-in-hand with a significant transformation in automation, data and analytics and a “laser sharp” focus on customer experience within a digital ecosystem.

Agents to staff

The agents Vardon talks of earlier are undergoing a transformation too, until now they’ve been self-employed, now Provident plans to make them members of staff, which Provident says will improve the service to the customer and increase the flexibility and responsiveness of the business. For Vardon and his team that means the introduction of a new CRM underpinned by a new MDM solutions, routing and scheduling tools, territory planning, voice recording and new apps.  

“It has been a massive introduction of technology so that we can have more control,” Vardon says of an initiative by Provident to improve the perception of non-standard financial service providers.

Vardon is the latest in a number of CIOs opting for the Microsoft Dynamics platform, the CIO says he assessed Salesforce, “there’s not much between them and we are a Microsoft house,” the organisation has also adopted Office 365, IBM is providing analytics tools to the financial services business and UST is a key supplier. As you enter the IT department a board features all the suppliers, the board is divided into quadrants where everyone in the organisation can see how the supplier is performing. It is like a Gartner magic quadrant on a very local and real scale and if as a supplier you are in the wrong quadrant it can be a difficult place to see you brand. It is a model I have seen used by the major supermarkets for the suppliers of the goods they stock.

“We are proud of our heritage, but our IT needs to look to our future,” Vardon says. “We are all about analytics, customers and their experience,” he says of the change in focus in his team. In regards to how Vardon managed the contract with former employee UST he says: “UST are a major supplier with strong credentials. My senior team completed due diligence quickly and swiftly and we’re confident in our choice of partner. So much so that we have contracted UST to provide 24x7x365 support and an element of BI, security, testing and development to Provident Financial.”

Vardon has spent the bulk of his career in retail and retail financial services and worked alongside Andy Haywood COO of Manchester retailer N Brown at Lloyds, Boots and The Cooperative, moving to become CIO of Boots when Haywood moved to The Cooperative.For the last two years Vardon headed the retail arm of vendor UST and was CDO for Europe.

“The romance of travel goes by the wayside, every two weeks I’d be in the US. But it was a great insight into large organisations as I got to work with the likes of Walmart and you also realise the challenges of a vendor,” he says of his time with UST.  

Away from Provident Financial and a young family Vardon is a proud born and bred son of  Stoke on Trent and is involved in the University he studied at. “I am trying to make them look at how the market is changing.

Vardon is also involved in startup MindSauce where he is an advisor and investor.  MindSauce is an online marketplace for short-term, ‘micro-consulting’ assignments with clients on an hourly or daily rate either face to face or via fully integrated video and mobile to mobile capability.

 

About Mark Chillingworth 168 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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