Cyber company breaks with tradition

First-e was built from the Internet up. And as a pure Internet company, this international banking operation has rewritten many of the rules of traditional business.

“There was no manual when I arrived,” says Margaret Murray, chief administration officer. “Our aim was to be a fluid, dynamic organisation.” When it comes to staff, the company has three aims: “Best practices to recruit highly-skilled staff, to retain them and to ensure they enjoy working with First-e group.”

The responsibility falls on the shoulders of Irish-born Murray, who formerly held senior management roles in HR, admin and sales at Chubb Ireland, and it’s a big job. When she joined six months ago, the workforce at the Dublin headquarters amounted to fewer than 200; now it’s closer to 400, plus 200 regularly contracted staff.

First-e is a trademark of French Bank Banque d’Escompte. It was created by a team of financial services experts from across Europe who identified a lack of customer focus in the traditional banks, best symbolised in most people’s minds by long queues and bank charges.

First-e aims to offer its customers a high standard of service and because of its minimal overheads and fixed costs, one of the best interest rates around.

The company works as a group of units and took the decision not to build a traditional HR department but to make the administrative unit responsible for it instead. It chose this approach because Murray considers staff development to be the responsibility of the heads of the business units and their line managers.

She believes by establishing a dominant HR department there is a risk that HR managers may “empire-build”, allowing line managers to relinquish their responsibility to develop the staff. It contracted consultancy KK International to work with the HR team and the business managers to provide training and development programmes.

The workforce has an average age of about 29 and the company view is that they should be empowered and given authority from early on.

When it comes to recruiting, First-e uses several channels, including headhunter Michael Page and three key recruitment agencies in Dublin which are in tune with the style and culture of the company.

“It’s a very busy HR office with a dynamic group of staff,” Murray says. “We are very fast-paced at identifying our skills and people requirements and if the fit is right the recruitment cycle is concluded at high speed.”

Increasingly, it is making use of on-line job sites – it has recently been in talks with Monster and Stepstone – including the job section on its own corporate site.

“We have the same issues as any other leading technology company. People with the right skills are limited, but our recruitment campaign over the past year has been enormously successful,” Murray says.

“A lot of our staff approached the company seeking to work with First-e and we have a successful employment referral programme.”

With new staff continually joining, First-e works hard to ensure the internal communication infrastructure is in place, and maximises use of its intranet for this. “It is updated daily and has everything from a statement from the CEO to where staff can buy their lunch,” says Murray. “It also features a fortnightly magazine which carries news items and profiles staff members.”

Fifteen nationalities contribute to the workforce and Murray has been involved in devising a lot of relocation packages. Roles range from techies and customer service to financial analysts. In general, people have settled well, she says.

“Dublin is seen as an attractive place for a European workforce. A lot of the IT people are young and come from England.”

One of Murray’s priorities is finding a building in Dublin large enough to house 600 staff since they’re currently spread across three buildings. Anyone got some office space to let?

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