Cards fall into place for director

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 May, 2010, 12:00am

Neil Gardner became director of Citibank's global consumer group's credit card business in late 2007. In doing so, he assumed a diverse portfolio with responsibility for business strategy, sales and marketing, and product development, which includes reward programmes and co-branding initiatives. His 300-strong team handles everything from telemarketing to signing up new merchants, and recently oversaw the launch of the first credit card in Hong Kong with an Octopus function. Having worked previously for ANZ Bank in Australia and GE Money on the mainland, Gardner counts himself lucky to have found his niche in a sector that keeps evolving. He talks to John Cremer

How did you find your way into the credit card business?

Coming out of university, I had no real career aspirations and no idea what to do. Because I had a degree in mathematics and computing, I fell into a job with a consulting company involved with IT and programming credit card software. The role left me unfulfilled, but I enjoyed the business part of it and was keen to learn more. I'm grateful to Marks & Spencer in Britain for taking a chance on me by offering me a job in their financial services business. There, I learned about marketing, analytics, customer feedback and the need to be creative and consumer-oriented. Then, I went into credit card operations with a bank.

What are the challenges you face in Hong Kong?

This is one of the most competitive credit card markets anywhere in the world. It is relatively small, but has highly aware consumers, so it is a real street fight to get market share and then keep it. If you think you are good at this business, it really is the place to test yourself. Someone is always coming along with another product or rewards programme, so there is constant pressure for new ideas to generate revenue. Because there aren't significant numbers of new customers coming through the door, you have to keep innovating with rewards, travel products, cash back offers or partner benefits to fit the different market segments.

What characterises your personal style of management?

I spent 10 years working in Britain and about five in Australia, so compared to other people in our business, I've got a Western approach to management. I prefer an open style of communication and like to empower my team. People are hired to do a job, so while I push my agenda and coach them, I don't want to sign off on every decision they make. I think the team here appreciates that I give them some space plus the freedom to 'make mistakes' and develop. I believe a quick meeting is a good meeting. If you take people away from their 'day job', there should be a purpose, so I advocate they pop their head around the door or update me on the fly.

How do you achieve a sensible work-life balance?

I tend to get in earlier than most colleagues and try to leave on time at least two nights a week to be sure of seeing my kids. To keep fit, I play indoor soccer, a bit of golf, and some tennis, which is also good for the social side. I feel employees should be trusted to manage their own work-life balance, provided they do it well and achieve their objectives at work.

What advice do you give to job-seekers and junior executives?

When you are young, it's often hard to know which direction to take. I see a lot of people choosing jobs for the money, but it is much better to find something you love and an employer who can empower you to be the kind of individual you want to be. Since most of us spend such a significant amount of time at work, it is important to enjoy what you do. Therefore, it pays to do your homework to make sure the role, the company's values and the organisational culture are right for you.

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Recommends having a network of contacts to bounce ideas off and tap for advice

Convenes a monthly meeting of functional heads to prevent silos or 'little empires' developing

As a personal gesture, sends hand-written notes to thank staff for good work