Our fintech event, MoneyConf, kicks off in Madrid this week. Atom Bank CEO, Mark Mullen, tells us why he believes in banking, even though it’s “deeply unfashionable to admit that”, ahead of his talk at the event.
As a child, when Mark Mullen was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he didn’t reply enthusiastically “a banker”. But here he is today, the CEO and co-founder of Atom Bank. At a time when the job title “banker” is almost a dirty word.
“Like many people who work in banking and financial services I had no ambition to do so,” Mark told us. Instead, he studied History in Trinity College, Dublin. He did what he loved. Soon enough, though, the realities of the so-called “real world” became clear: he had to make some money.
Eventually, he would found Atom, the Durham-based, mobile-only bank that has reached a valuation of $230 million. But that would come later, after he got an MBA and worked for years in banking.
Marketing has been the heart of Mark’s career. At HSBC he was the head of marketing communications, a role which would lead to him becoming the head of marketing at First Direct, and finally, CEO of First Direct. “I’ve had a long fascination with what makes people tick,” said Mark.
But he also has a thing for tech. “Technology is a natural consequence of working in banking and financial services in the period that I’ve had the privilege of doing so. Because, it’s not like it’s a recent arrival. All the time I’ve worked in banks, you couldn’t run a bank without technology. Whether it be mainframe or server-based or cloud-based or whether it be back office processing or internet or mobile – it’s a central thread of my industry.”
A bank is built in record time
It’s not everyday someone starts a bank. A payment app, maybe, but a fully fledged bank? There’s no shortcut to build that kind of startup. “There are easier things to do, and trust me I can say that with the benefit of a number of years of experience of it now, than building a bank,” Mark told us.
In 2013, Mark was approached by Anthony Thomson, former chairman and founder of Metro Bank. He was eager to get stuck into a new project after launching Metro, the first new bank on the British high street in over 100 years. By March that year, they were thinking seriously about creating a bank and beginning to focus in on the type of bank they should create.
Mark talks the launch of Atom with BBVA
If Anthony had not reached out to Mark, it would never have happened. “I have no doubt that had Anthony not wanted to go and create a new bank I wouldn’t be doing this,” Mark told us.
When it came down to it, though, Mark didn’t need much persuading. He could see that Anthony’s entrepreneurial experience teamed with Mark’s digital background was a match made in fintech heaven. “The combination of me being very tech and digital and internet focused, and him having experience of founding a bank and raising capital, seemed to be a pretty good marriage,” he says.
Mark convinced himself that it was the right time, and co-founder, to go for it. “If you don’t convince yourself, ain’t nobody else going to do it for you,” he said.
This pairing would lead to the bank being built in “record time”. Today, just two years after it was founded, Atom Bank is open. Its first offering? A fixed savings account which is said to be the best on the market. But you won’t find them on the high street. They are decidedly mobile-only: right now you need an iPhone to become a member. Android need not apply, yet.
Mark is determined to shake off the red tape and legacy systems that has accumulated over the years in banking. “We don’t have to create a single product we don’t believe in,” Mark told The Finanser.
Mark’s marketing chops comes across in every other sentence. His passion for personalisation runs through their strategy. “Technologically it’s possible for us to be highly bespoke in terms of data and in terms of customer journey and customer experience. And we kind of thought, “well, we didn’t come here to build a replica of somebody else’s bank”. In fact, every customer has their own personal Atom Bank logo.
Leaving the banking industry in a better state
Mark and Anthony believe in what they’re working towards and believe that they can make their mark on the world. And Mark has strong words for those who criticise the banking industry. “Let’s face it, if you’re a banker the last decade hasn’t been much fun now has it?” said Mark.
He added: “We believe in banking. It’s deeply unfashionable to admit that. But we think that banking has value to add to society and will continue to have value to add to our society for as long as money is needed.”
“If you’ve spent your career, as I have, in the banking and financial services sector: I’d quite like to leave it in a better place than I found it.”