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In conversation with Farah Ballands, CEO

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In conversation with Farah Ballands, CEO

As a lawyer plying her trade with some of the Channel Islands’ best-known law firms, the ‘bright lights and excitement of running businesses’ lured Farah Ballands into the trust sector. Now, as Group CEO of one of the biggest players in the market, she tells us about her plans for the business, expectations for the sector, and helping more women reach the top .*

Tell us about your early life and what brought you to the Channel Islands?

I was born in Hertfordshire in England – but we moved to Jersey when I was just two. My father was a consultant psychiatrist in Jersey, so I’ve lived here practically my entire life. Having studied law at university, I became an English barrister and I am a Jersey lawyer by background, a role that eventually took me to Appleby.

How did your career in law take you into the trust sector?

I had actually joined what we now know as Appleby as a Partner in 2003 – when it was still Bailhache Labesse – and was pretty quickly asked to lead its trust company. Although I was a lawyer by profession, my interest in that area had been stirred when I was at Mourant. 

I had seen the trust side of the business in action and it was like a light went on for me. I found it fascinating. I thought: ‘I just get this and it excites me’.

I loved being a lawyer and the work was obviously interesting. But it isn’t as satisfying for me as running a business. I love the engagement you get with lots of different people when running a business. I love juggling lots of different issues and spinning different plates. 

And what was the progression that led you to become the CEO of Ocorian?

When Bailhache Labesse was looked at as a potential merger partner for Appleby, one of the things that was of interest to Appleby was the overall business and the success we had seen with the trust company. Appleby didn’t have a presence in Jersey at the time – so it was a sensible move on that front too.

And, as a result of all those things, when the merger took place in 2006, I was asked to lead all of Appleby’s non-legal parts, becoming Global Head of Fiduciary, which was a pretty big business.

In 2015, we decided to sell the trust company – so I led the management buy-out of that part of the business, which was backed by Bridgepoint and became Estera. 

That saw the creation of a separate, standalone and independent business – which was really exciting for me as someone from a traditional legal background.

Then, last year, we were acquired by Ocorian and, as part of that transaction, I was asked to lead the combined business – meaning that I now find myself as CEO of the much bigger business, which is backed by Inflexion Private Equity.

How did the acquisition come about and, as someone who was a part of the acquired business and is now the head of the merged entity, why was it the right deal?

What’s really interesting is that if Ocorian hadn’t wanted to buy us, we would have wanted to buy them. That’s how compatible the businesses are. Both businesses had very similar beginnings in law firms.

Both firms were also rooted in that technical space, focused on client service delivery, long-standing client relationships and long-standing employee relationships. And we were both working through ambitious growth plans. So it was an incredibly good fit. 

I would say that legacy Estera probably had a broader and more diverse footprint, because it had been a global practice group previously. But then legacy Ocorian had also achieved greater international reach through its more recent acquisition activity. So, in many ways, we were made for each other.

Of course, there are plenty of things to iron out from any acquisition – the need to integrate processes and systems; and the need to iron out overlaps. But being so similar in our approaches is making that easier.

We are dealing with like-minded people and, while we may have been at slightly different points in our journeys, that helps make the integration easier.

How did going through the buy-out of Estera from Appleby influence your handling of the acquisition of Estera by Ocorian – and the work you’re doing now to establish the new organisation?

From a personal point of view, it certainly gave me much more awareness of what to expect, having been through the process before – albeit in the form of a buy-out rather than being acquired.

As somebody from a legal and financial background, I have of course always had some insight into what to expect and into the various stages of the process. But it’s very different when you’re in it and living it.

It’s fairly scary the first-time round, if I’m honest. You have to do lots of things outside of your comfort zone or your usual repertoire. And it’s very different to being a leader in a law firm – in a sector that has traditionally been very linear. 

If you embark on a career in law, it’s a very clear trajectory – you start off as a lawyer, you make it to partner and, at some point, you retire.

Our trajectory has taken me off that path, which brings with it plenty of challenges. I enjoy lots of that – but I am also a naturally introverted person, so some of the challenges the M&A process throws up can be pretty daunting. 

So, having been through the process previously put me in good stead for this time around.

How has the acquisition of Estera changed Ocorian’s business proposition?

The obvious thing it brings for us at this point is scale. The platform we now have delivers real credibility and justification to our aspirations.

We’re now 1,200 people across 16 locations; we have assets under administration of more than £260bn; and we’re now well inside the top 10 in terms of revenue, if not the top five or six. We are now one of the players of scale in our sector.

The really exciting thing for us – and therefore for our clients and our people – is that, in coming together, we can better deliver on our commitment to putting our clients first.

And we don’t expect to stop there. We still have sizeable ambitions. We want to double in size again in the next three to four years, which will take our revenues up enormously again, and we’re unapologetic about that.

For me, it’s really simple. Our scale will help us attract the best people, and allow us to develop them to be even better and even more focused on delivering for clients – and in turn, that will help us deliver on our commitment to putting our clients first.

How do you plan to instigate that growth and how quickly do you see it taking place?

It stands to reason that if we want to achieve that level of growth over the next three to four years, we will need to acquire further businesses. 

In the timeframe we have to play with, it certainly won’t be possible to deliver all that growth purely organically. We will need to look at further acquisitions if we are to achieve the growth we want so quickly.

Both the legacy sides of our business are seasoned and considered acquirers. There are businesses out there that would definitely welcome being part of a platform like ours – with the sorts of aspirations and values we have. We’re good people, we want the best for our people and our clients, and I think we’re a good home for businesses in our sector.

What are your three biggest immediate tasks or objectives as CEO?

Clearly, growth is at the forefront of what we want to achieve, because we want our business to be evolving and doing more high-quality work for the best clients. So the growth piece drives everything – and I am clearly focused on that.

The second area of focus right now is the integration piece. We have come together as two separate businesses and we want to look at our systems, our overlaps and our processes, so we can take the best of those and use them for more effectively servicing our clients.

And the third area is setting the roadmap for where we go next in a geographical sense and the territories we might want to explore. The US is highly attractive, we just have to think about how we enter. 

We’re also a bit underweight in Asia compared with some of our peers, so we are looking at that and moving ahead as well. And we will explore other areas to enter too.

How do the Channel Islands fit into this expansion into other jurisdictions?

I’m hugely biased, of course, having been brought up in Jersey. But even those who were not brought up here couldn’t fail to recognise that it offers a really high-quality experience for clients.

As a jurisdiction, it has been regulated for a long time. It is very evolved and sophisticated and, in comparison with some of the more recently regulated jurisdictions, it has greater maturity in relation to the tax system, the legal system and the regulatory framework. That is very confidence-inspiring.

Jersey has a reputation for excellence in a number of areas, including in the fund space and the private client space, and it is very well regarded generally. And I don’t see that tailing off. 

What trends and developments do you think we will see across the fund, corporate, capital market and private client services space going forward? Are the transactions you have undertaken representative of the wider sector – and do you think we’ll see more of that type of activity?

I think it’s no surprise in our sector that consolidation is a real trend right now – and that it will continue to be.

Another thing we can be sure we will continue to see is the increased use of tech to enhance the client experience. Digitisation for efficiency will continue to be an area of focus for the sector. 

We have a number of Lean project specialists to ensure we can improve and enhance processes and the client experience – and that will be a focus for the sector as a whole.

What we probably should expect to see is a difference in the way we work. As businesses like ours inevitably become more global, I think we will increasingly see them using their centres of excellence as their base, with expansions into hubs elsewhere.

The sector hasn’t really gone down that route yet – but we have seen others doing it and it’s the route the big banks have taken in the past, so I think we may well see more of that.

Of course, the challenge that Covid-19 threw up was huge for everyone in the sector too. The remote working aspect was challenging for us, coming as it did at a time when we were bringing two business together and introducing people to work together who had never met. 

But we did it – and it showed we can work well remotely.

Do I expect we may see more remote and flexible working across the sector as a result? Given that people have proved they can work in a mature, dedicated and professional way from home, I do think that’s something we will see more of.

As a high-profile female leader in a traditionally male-dominated market (especially at board level), I understand you’re passionate about helping to redress the balance and encouraging gender equality. Can you share some thoughts on that – and your own approach?

The thing for me is to focus on the excellence of individuals. As business leaders, whether male or female, we have an obligation to bring people on through the business – to help them develop and evolve, and to help them be the best they can be.

I would say we do that really well in our organisation and I would hope more and more organisations are doing the same.

What I think is really important is ensuring everyone has the same opportunity to do that. Whatever your gender or race, we must work hard to make sure everyone has the same opportunity to fill a role, to develop into the career they want, and to climb up organisations.

I was very fortunate in that I was given that opportunity. I was pushed when I didn’t always believe I could do something. I was encouraged when others were more vocal than me or perhaps more high profile.

I was given the chances that others had and I took them, even though I didn’t always think I was capable. We have to make sure that happens for everyone – regardless of race and gender.

That’s what I am passionate about – and I hope to encourage other organisations to do that also.

In terms of our business, we have an above-average proportion of female leaders. Women make up a really important part of our business and we need to make sure they continue to get opportunities. 

*Interview first featured in Business Life magazine

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