Saskia Klep (Saxo Bank): ‘An Intense Migration’

Saskia Klep (Saxo Bank): ‘An Intense Migration’
Saskia Klep put a ‘definitive full stop’ behind a long and challenging change process. The CEO of Saxo Bank Netherlands led the integration of clients from Dutch BinckBank to Danish Saxo’s investment platform in recent years and shares her lessons learned. ‘It was an extremely hectic time.’

Saskia Klep looks around her modest office in Amsterdam’s Zuidas district. Here she is at home. She knows almost all of the 250 people who work here personally. This is not quite common for the Zuidas. ‘But here, connecting is still important,’ she says. And she happens to be good at connecting. Not that long ago the office was in severe turbulence. ‘A very difficult change project that no one was expecting, neither clients nor employees.’ All sails had to be set, but the storm has subsided, the problems have largely been solved and we are working hard again at the regular processes at Saxo. Klep talks about her experiences with Susanne Guntermann, partner of consulting organization Valcon. ‘I have done a migration like this twice now and it is very intense. It is wonderful to be dealing with the business normally again.’

Why is Saxo Bank an attractive bank to work for?
‘I made a conscious decision to make the switch four years ago. I came from private banking, and it seemed exciting to work at a truly digital company. Private banking is a people’s business with a lot of customer contact. Here that customer contact is largely digital, only with our institutional customers the contact is often in person. We are constantly working on optimizing the investor platform. How do you best reach the customer with digital services? We measure and research customer experience with the platform to make it as intuitive as possible. I found that intriguing from the beginning.
On top of that, this is a very young and dynamic company. In private banking I mainly dealt with people over 40, here I often work with people in their twenties. That gives a delightful energy. I have never before worked in a company with so much dynamism and so much execution power.’

Can you give an example of that great power of execution?
‘Recently the head office in Denmark took the initiative to pay credit interest to our customers. In no time everything was in place: the customers were informed; the systems adapted and within 14 days everything was arranged. Elsewhere, this kind of project often takes a few months. I think an important explanation for this is that we still have our founder/owner, Kim Fournais, as group CEO. The company is still run by him as if we were in the early days, even though we now operate in 18 countries and have more than 2,500 employees. That dynamism and power of execution is very inspiring to witness.’

Four years ago, you started as CEO of BinckBank and had to deal with Saxo’s Danes. Was there a big cultural difference between the two organizations?
‘Yes, although there are also a lot of similarities between Danes and the Dutch. I learned in the change process, for example, that Danes and Dutch experience risk very differently. The Dutch are considerably more risk averse. We are more conservative. In a transition you go from A to B. You then divide that trajectory into small steps, but the Dutch first want to have everything crystallized before they take a step. They only do that when all the check marks are green, when everything works 100 percent. Danes take a different approach. They analyze how long it will take to solve a problem and take the step in the meantime. A totally different mindset.’

It is no secret that the integration of BinckBank at Saxo did not go smoothly. Negative reports about problems and an overloaded help desk appeared in the press. The Financial Markets Authority (AFM) got involved. That must not have been a pleasant time. How do you look back on this?
‘It was an extremely hectic time in which we had to deal with a lot of different challenges. Let me start by saying that no mistakes were made in transferring documents or money, but on the process side things sometimes went wrong. We also made mistakes in communication, for example in the proper settlement of dividend payments. Saxo was insufficiently prepared for the quantity and complexity of this, given the large volume of equity investments in the portfolios of Dutch clients. For Saxo, this was new. This led to many ambiguities and questions from our customers.’

At one point you were completely unreachable.
‘Things did indeed go badly wrong. A killer for business operations. Even though a lot of energy was put into the preparations for the migration. During the preparations we obviously also considered the extra work for our customer service. We had expanded our call team considerably in preparation for the first Monday after one of the migration weekends. We were prepared for 6,000 incoming calls, but it turned out to be 10,000. Then you immediately fall behind. Waiting times got way too long and customers then started emailing, but we did not have the capacity to answer all the emails immediately. A tsunami of events. Very annoying, especially for our customers.’

What did you mainly do in the crisis days?
‘The only thing you can do is make sure that your people stay afloat, that you support your people, because they were really struggling. Giving attention, giving pep talks, expressing gratitude, and also working with. I joined customer service and started answering emails myself. Not that I had an answer to everything, but I especially wanted to contribute here. Everyone worked extremely hard those days. Entire weekends were sacrificed.’

What did you learn from it?
‘In retrospect, there was too much focus on the technical side of the migration and too little on the process side. We relied too much on assumptions, on the assumption that these customer processes would be in place sufficiently. Unfortunately, that was not the case. In retrospect, we should have paid much more attention to that.
A second lesson is that we could have communicated more proactively. Customers could not reach us and became frustrated. We should have done more to reach them and explain what was going on.’

You have since become a change process specialist....
‘This is indeed the second change process I have led. In my previous job, I was closely involved in the merger of the private banks Theodoor Gilissen and Insinger de Beaufort into the merger bank InsingerGilissen. That was also a gigantic operation.’

And were the two processes similar?
‘They were both difficult processes, but there are differences. At InsingerGilissen, it was a merger between equals. At BinckBank, it was more of an acquisition. That gives a totally different dynamic. With the merger into InsingerGilissen, really everything was under discussion. We had to match everything with each other and both parties felt they their ideas on everything were the best.
In the recent process at Saxo, BinckBank was the acquired party. You have less of a say then. At least it is quite  clearcut. What makes it difficult is that you must swallow every now and then. Even if you have good ideas, you are not always heard.’

Do you feel that there is now a full stop to that turbulent period?
‘Yes, absolutely, there is a full stop behind it. We are out of crisis mode. We were already through the crisis around this time last year. Of course, we are always working on improvement projects, but that is now business as usual. I have done a migration like this twice now and it is very intense. It is a crazy experience, but it is wonderful to just get back to dealing with the business normally. Conceiving things to serve our customers even better.’

What is currently high on your agenda?
‘At the moment it is mainly the introduction of a totally new product in the Dutch market. We are going to add that to our package in the year. It is one of the things we can offer new in the Netherlands now that we have become part of Saxo. And furthermore, we are working on numerous improvement projects and small innovations. Among other things, using customer surveys and artificial intelligence. We are analyzing our data and trying to improve customer service. We want to offer them the right information or content at the right time.’

Where do you want to be in five years with Saxo Netherlands?
‘Actually I have two huge ambitions. The first is to significantly increase Saxo’s brand awareness in the Netherlands. BinckBank had grown into a major Dutch brand in recent years; Saxo is not yet that in the Netherlands. In five years, everyone will know who we are, I have no doubt about that. And in five years we will have grown considerably. I say that because I believe in the product we offer. Saxo has a very good platform.
My second ambition is that I would like to get more people in the Netherlands to invest, preferably with us. We in the Netherlands invest far too little. We are dealing with a government that seems to be increasingly withdrawing social safety nets. People are expected to be more and more self-reliant. I see it as my personal mission to make people aware of the advantages of investing, although I do realize that in times of energy poverty, for example, investing is not for everyone. But we are dealing, among other things, with a growing group of self-employed people who must provide for their own retirement. For them, investing really is the way to go; saving will not get you there.’

Why this personal mission in the first place?
‘It has partly to do with my upbringing. My parents divorced when I was 5. My mother instilled in me that I should be able to take care of myself later. I think financial independence is important. Especially among women this is still regularly a problem. I also notice that investing often has a negative image. Even the AFM always points out the risks of investing. Of course, there are risks, I do not deny that, but it is just as important to consider the possible risks of not investing. It is strange, is it not, that in economics education in high schools today, there is absolutely no focus on investing? Apparently, we leave that to YouTubers and influencers. Very unfortunate.
At the time, BinckBank’s mission was an important reason for me to work there: democratization of investing, making investing possible for as large a group as possible, I believe in that very strongly. At Saxo, this is also woven into the mission. In fact, investing gives you the opportunity to invest in the world, in the things you find important.’

If we take another look at your role as a leader…, what have you learned in that regard in the recent period?
‘In periods of great uncertainty, people need an honest story. It is not about comforting words like ‘it will all be okay,’ no, people want to know where they stand, even if it is bad news. So yes, work is going to be moved to headquarters and yes, jobs are going to be lost. It is better to be open and honest. Leadership is also about providing perspective. Occasionally outlining where the company is coming from, what has already been accomplished and where we are going. And of course, sometimes I went too fast. Then I ran a little too fast ahead, had everything figured out, but forgot to include others in the thought process. But if you admit that honestly, it is also accepted, in my experience. I also dare to express my doubts as a leader. ‘Yeah guys, I do not know it all either.’ That honesty is appreciated.’

What do you mirror yourself against? Do you have role models?
‘I like to find support in theoretical models. During the change projects I did, there was always someone who showed me such a model at the right moment. I like that, to see practice translated into theory. Then I can place it better. I do not have any real role models. Although I sometimes look with admiration at women like Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. How do they get their message across? Not even so much in terms of content as how they act.’

Is there enough female leadership in corporate Holland?
‘Unfortunately, not. And I fear that is not going to change soon. Meanwhile, I am also very much in favor of quotas. Without quotas it simply will not work. I recently again read a report that more female leaders in the financial sector are considering quitting than male leaders. I find that regrettable. That has much to do with the culture. Ultimately, it is not about diversity of bodies, it is about diversity of thinking and leadership. In my opinion, there is still too little room for female leadership - whether it comes from a woman or a man. As a woman, you must have a solid background to remain standing in this world.’

Meanwhile, you yourself are a role model....
‘Yes, I am.’

And how is that?
‘I wear that role with pride. I am not always aware of it. But when I am confronted with it, I think yes, of course, I am in a position where you are seen as a role model. And to other women I say, ‘Yes, look well, here I am, and if I can do it, so can you!’

Interview by Susanne Guntermann, partner at Valcon. Published in Management Scope 04 2023.

This article was last changed on 11-04-2023