In this latest instalment of the Lockdown Interviews, International Investment's Gary Robinson speaks to Howard Bilton, chairman of Gibraltar-headquartered Sovereign Group, one of the largest independent corporate and trust service providers in the world.
GR: How has covid-19 lockdown affected how you work generally?
HB: Not so much really. For several years now I have been working largely from home so for me there was little change in my personal working method. I found that working from home suited me very well as I start much earlier and get less interruptions and these days see only a few clients.
We need to travel less to save the planet and it is a shame that it took a pandemic to force us to do what we should have been doing voluntarily" - Howard Bilton, chairmen, Sovereign Group
GR: Describe where have you been working during lockdown and how are you coping with more remote working, i.e. the work/life balance?
HB: I have an office at home so I have been working from there. In the first stages of lockdown it was not possible to play squash or tennis. I play both regularly. Instead I used the rowing machine which I bought some time ago but had sat there unmolested. In Hong Kong we were quite lucky that restaurants remained open throughout the worst of the virus so for me there was no real change to the work life balance and I could continue pretty much as normal.
I appreciate that I am lucky having a quite large house so can have separate areas for exercise and as an office. Many in Hong Kong live in quite small apartments so probably found it more difficult.
GR: What are the biggest challenges a) for the industry and b) advisers?
HB: I think everybody in financial services should think themselves quite fortunate. Our work can continue without interruption. For sure, face to face meetings have been problematic but I think what the situation has shown is that those meetings are not necessary. Everything can be achieved perfectly well on the telephone or by video conference.
It could be that those who could have held face to face meetings would have an advantage over those who could not but as the playing field has been pretty level throughout the world I don't think it has mattered and everybody has got used to the new norm of communicating digitally.
GR: How has Sovereign Group changed how it deals with and supports brokers and advisers internationally?
HB: Very little has changed. We have found it is perfectly possible to communicate effectively with our professional network digitally. And arguably it makes things easier and more efficient. Finding time for meetings is a lot more difficult than finding time for a telephone call. Our industry is fortunate and we are lucky we are not in F and B, retail or travel. I am not clear how they are going to recover either soon or indeed at all.
GR: How important has technology been during lockdown?
HB: Technology has been vital. Luckily our technology was already pretty good and little change was required. And of course there was readymade digital platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams which are essentially plug and play, are easy to use and required little adjustment to the existing systems to utilise fully and effectively.
GR: What lasting impact will covid-19 have in international advice market?
HB: It will be interesting to see. We know that many of our staff prefer to work in an office environment but we have shown, perhaps, that commuting into a central office is not necessary. It might be preferable but it is certainly possible to work a different way with, arguably, time and efficiency savings and less of the pollution which is a necessary result of both local and international travel. I hope that less travel becomes a permanent thing.
We need to travel less to save the planet and it is a shame that it took a pandemic to force us to do what we should have been doing voluntarily. Those who travel frequently might have a competitive advantage but it does not help preserve the planet and we need to drastically curtail the pollution caused by travel generally and air travel in particular.