Profile: Tony Leahy, head of HR and communications, Bank of Cyprus UK

Tony Leahy speaking at The Personnel Today Awards 2009, where Bank of Cyprus won the overall winner award.

Tony Leahy relishes the extra scope his dual HR and communications role gives him. He joined Bank of Cyprus UK as head of HR in 2000, and took on the marketing and communications portfolio two years ago. Although the team is small, with HR and communications combined adding up to just half a dozen staff, the two disciplines work closely together – a level of collaboration larger teams might struggle with.

Leahy believes his broader remit has helped make the bank’s HR function more commercial, and it was brought centre-stage in a recent rebrand.

The organisation’s original branding, inspired by a Cypriot coin, did not translate well in its overseas markets. The new logo, an olive branch, has bedded down, and while revamping marketing materials, the team found itself looking more closely at the customer experience. That led in turn to an examination of how the bank presents itself externally.

Leahy says that while the focus to date has been on the customer, the next step will be to look at the employer brand. This natural progression would perhaps have been less so in an organisation with separate heads of HR and marketing, he believes.

Running marketing may have spoilt Leahy when it comes to pure HR. He admits that while he is not planning a move, he would probably look for a more commercial role next time. But he hedges his bets, saying: “It’s about where I feel I would add value. HR is where my heart is.”

Leahy’s CV

2000 – present
Bank of Cyprus UK, head of HR and communications

1985 – 2000
Bank of Ireland GB,
HR manager

Hilton National and Swallow Hotels, various HR and training roles

 Banking background

Bank of Cyprus has been in the UK since the 1950s. Just a decade ago, 80% of both customers and staff were of Cypriot extraction. Today’s workforce – 170 people in all – is more diverse.

Leahy calls the company a “small big bank”, offering everything you would find in a large bank. He says the key benefit of being a small business (albeit part of a 12,000-strong group with a global presence) is “everybody knows everybody else”.

Another advantage is that the bank is, in Leahy’s words, “nimble”, although he admits: “Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we’re quite small and nimble, and we make it difficult for ourselves in terms of bureaucracy.” But he believes most organisations make that mistake.

New focus

In its early days in the UK, the organisation was a retail, community-focused, bank, catering to the needs of Cypriot expats. While it still has retail customers, it markets itself today as a business bank, working primarily with small organisations. To compete against its much larger business banking peers, Bank of Cyprus UK will have to set itself apart. Leahy believes this is a question of playing on the bank’s compact size and flexibility.

Customers’ banking needs and expectations are changing rapidly, and the business is attempting to meet these at a similar speed. To this end, it has set up the 20:20 Vision Forum.

Members, all employees, meet to reflect on recent changes to the bank’s structure and client proposition, and to debate what they will need to do to get where they want to be in a decade’s time. It is still early days for the forum which, being strategic, currently involves only management committee members, although Leahy is confident it will eventually involve staff at all levels.

The bank has recently invested in its online banking capabilities, and is soon to offer mobile phone banking. Leahy says a priority is to make sure the bank has the technology it needs to support what it already does well, rather than “using technology as the tail that’s wagging the dog”.

Banking backlash

While staff ponder what the bank needs to do to continue growing, Leahy is conscious that the wider public “has come to indiscriminately hate banks”.

He concedes banks have made mistakes, but points out that within the sector there are organisations which have lent conservatively and managed their liquidity. Bank of Cyprus is one such bank, he believes, and he is unhappy that all banks have been tarred with the same brush.

Given the public backlash to stories of bankers’ bonuses, how does Leahy think banking staff should be rewarded?

“As a small bank, particularly a London-based one, we have to be competitive with our reward strategy,” he says. “When we put out an advert with ‘Bank of Cyprus UK’ on it, it doesn’t turn heads, and we’re not the best payers in the market – we can’t afford to be – so we have to offer something that’s sustainable and attractive.”

Leahy says the bank offers a “prudent” bonus scheme, entitled ‘Sharing in Success’, with the emphasis on demonstrable success. No profit means no bonus. “We will never pay out bonuses where we don’t make a profit, or we can’t afford them.”

This sensible approach no doubt added to his annoyance over the government’s plans for addressing the bonus furore. “We are paying relatively modest bonuses, but we have suddenly got caught up in this whole political point-scoring issue.”

He adds: “There’s no doubt the excesses of the banking sector, particularly around rewards, need managing, but a more targeted approach would have been better.”

However, he is confident that the next 12 months will see common sense prevail. As he points out, high-earning bankers pay a large amount of tax, which the Treasury would no doubt miss if it were to dwindle.

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Tony Leahy audio clip

Listen to Tony Leahy talk further about his HR influences.

Best practice

Leahy says his educational background is “very ordinary”, but the MA in HR he took at Kingston University in 2005 has had a significant impact on him. At an early stage in his studies, he realised something that has always influenced the way in which he operates.

“It’s about best fit, rather than best practice,” he explains. “There are buckets of books out there that will tell you the latest way to run your HR department, but ultimately it comes down to: ‘Can I make this work in my organisation? Will it be a good match culturally? Will it match the skills I already have in the organisation?’

“Absolutely the last thing we want to do from an HR point of view is to introduce ideas that don’t work for the business. That’s just about HR feeling good.”

Winning ways

Bank of Cyprus UK’s winning project at the Personnel Today Awards 2009 was the introduction of a new defined contribution pension scheme.

Leahy says: “With our advisers, Mercer, we put in place a strategy to replace our existing pension with a scheme that would reflect the aspirations of a contemporary workforce, create a level playing field among all employees in terms of future benefit provision, and address the bottom-line business risk inherent in our existing arrangements. We wanted to reflect the fact that employees were increasingly mobile and at different stages in their lives.

“Following an extensive programme of consultation with employees, trustees, our employee forum, union Unite and other stakeholders, we closed our final salary scheme to future accrual, and our retirement savings plan, in December 2008. We introduced our new pension savings scheme on 1 January 2009. We have had 100% buy-in and very positive feedback from all stakeholders.”

Speaking on the night after collecting the overall winner gong, Leahy said: “Pensions are clearly a big issue at the moment, and have attracted a lot of bad press. Many companies have closed their final salary schemes, including us, and we wanted to create an alternative that would be really good for our people.

“I suppose our approach was just a bit different, so it’s really great to win.”





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