Five minutes with… Frances Weston, Managing Director of Econocom UK

Frances Weston stepped in to manage the UK operations of the European digital transformation & asset finance provider amid the growing coronavirus outbreak. In this exclusive interview with INFO+, she gives her perspective on the need for 5G, helping businesses stay afloat, and management in challenging times.

LEADERSHIP

You were named Managing Director this month. How do you prepare yourself for a leadership role in this challenging time?

In some ways, this is nothing new to me. I managed a business through the 2008 financial crash, and I have been brought into leadership roles in other turbulent times, at least three or four times now. The only difference this time – and this was also true in 2008 – is that we are still in the midst of it, and we can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In terms of my leadership, I prepare myself by staying optimistic. It may sound simplistic, but I try to share my optimism as much as possible. This is true with my team, my clients and with anybody who I interact with on a daily basis. Having the right mindset and creating positive energy increases focus and drive, and allows me to lead my team into a better time.

What have you learned from your experiences in times of crisis?
One of the main learnings is about engagement. As a leader, you must figure out the best way to engage with those around you. It's not about retracting back; it’s not about business as usual. It's about recognising that something has changed, and adapting to it in the most positive way possible.

I also believe that there is space for innovation in these circumstances, and part of our time at Econocom is dedicated to thinking outside of the box. What can we do differently? What are we missing? What are customers and business partners asking for now? Trying to think two steps ahead of what they need today allows my team to stay fully invested.

I’ve also learned that we as human beings cannot innovate if we are stuck in a stressful situation. We have our best ideas when we're feeling relaxed and calm. I encourage my team to meditate and exercise when they can, and I speak with them on a daily basis, allowing room for compassion and empathy.
 

DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

What has the crisis revealed about our current digital infrastructure?

The massive increase in remote working has shown a need, now more than ever, for 5G technology – not least because conferencing tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Zoom are being used on an unprecedented scale. 5G also has the potential to accelerate the way we interact with one another, by addressing the growing need for uninterrupted communication – you won't get dropping in and dropping out of calls and videos conferences – and offering greater connectivity.

How has it affected cash vs card payment?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that consumers make contactless payments rather than use paper money, which is now seen as a conduit for viruses. This is linked to a surge in cash-less payments, and has meant that there is a large demand for payment terminals, pin-card payments and cashless transactions. We have seen some companies go completely cashless, while others are thinking about making the transition, and we have been very active in enabling that movement for our clients.

What has this meant for retail banking?

Alongside trends in cash-less payments, we’re seeing a surge in online and telephone banking. But a more profound shift is happening as even those who use to drop into their local bank, such as the elderly, are now left with no choice. This has resulted in an education movement, community by community, to teach the elderly how to bank online. From our point of view, it has also shown a need in the retail banking sector to offer greater functionality, and to create omni-channel service for the majority of the population.

Does the increase in digital operations lead to cybersecurity risks?
Cyber-attacks may be the last thing that people are thinking about at the moment, but we definitely see a need for risk management in this area. We've seen a few ‘break ins’ in Britain recently, and we're anticipating that these will increase.

The truth is that the attacks are still happening, despite the virus. We have also seen cyber-criminals taking advantage at a time when security expenditure is being cut – as businesses are understandably looking very closely at their cost base. We advise businesses to reassess their kit and software in order to mitigate risks to the best of their ability.

 

OPERATIONS

What are the top concerns of your clients?

I'm always going to say ‘cash is king.’ This is more relevant now than any other time that I've ever seen in my career, and we’ve seen an unprecedented focus from our clients on limiting their capital expenditure, making every pound go just a little bit further. This means we've been looking at their technology spend on a more holistic basis, as well as finding solutions that allow them to preserve as much cash as possible.

Of course, the other side of the situation is about raising cash, which can be difficult in these times, but we there are strategies available that allow them to leverage their assets in new ways.

How does this affect the behaviour of lenders?
To step back from the problem, I would say that we are in a scenario where businesses – and this includes lenders – will be remembered for how they behave and how they act with their clients. For me, the fact of the matter is, we have a choice in how we treat our clients in the hard times. We've seen a lot of clients go to their banks and ask for deferred payments and payment holidays.

For us, the choice was very clear. Once we listened to our clients' needs, we try our very best to accommodate them accordingly. Sometimes it's out of our hands, but when we have the power to do so, we will do our utmost to work with clients in the best way possible.

Do you extend this approach to your suppliers?

Of course, we have the same ethos towards our suppliers that we do towards our clients. I had a great conversation yesterday with a very senior individual amongst one of our suppliers, and he agreed that, despite what's going on, we still have customer orders to fulfil. We still have solutions to provide, and we have to remain as professional and as consistent as possible.

The fact is that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. From a financing and lending perspective, you'll find that that's also aligned with many banks because of the creation of new government-led products. It’s a comforting perspective on the current circumstances, because we're really doing our upmost to maintain relationships with business partners.

 

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

How do you view the government’s support for businesses in your sector?

The government is trying to push through this, and they’re having to make very difficult calls that affect us all on a day to day basis. However, I think that what they are doing is in line with my expectations. I see my colleagues from the banks going in to speak with government on a daily basis, and this has enabled us to work together, part of wider team that is creating solutions to keep business afloat.

There is a lot of worry among customers, and also on a personal level, that some businesses will not survive. The government has tried to put into place solutions for these businesses. It may or may not work across the board – we will see how it unfolds. But I think the intention is positive, and we have to help create momentum in relation to it.

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