Mikael Sorensen has been in banking for more than 30 years, starting his career with spells at two different Danish banks before joining Handelsbanken in Copenhagen 23 years ago.
Moving through a variety of roles including Branch Manager and later Area Manager, he moved to Warsaw to head up Handelsbanken’s banking operations in Poland. Sorensen then moved to Amsterdam, to oversee the setup of Handelsbanken’s newest home market, the Netherlands, growing a branch network to serve local individuals and businesses. In November 2016, he was appointed as UK CEO, here in London.
Despite his career trajectory, Sorensen tells The LINK that he never planned out having a role with such international opportunities.
“Very often your career path is a matter of coincidences and being in the right place at the right time, and that’s probably the same for me. But I always found the challenge of working outside my home country very appealing, and I’ve never regretted taking those opportunities when they have come up,” he says.
“When I started at Handelsbanken we only had handful of branches outside of Sweden. If you look at where we are today, we have 207 branches here in the UK compared to three when I first started working for the bank. During my time in the Netherlands, a new home market for the bank, we set up 25 branches to meet the clear and growing demand for local relationship banking that we discovered over there, and that remains so evident here in the UK today. This growth really shows that there is a demand for the high levels of personal service we provide, through locally-empowered branch teams. It’s been fantastic to continue to be part of this journey”.
Sorensen attributes Handelsbanken’s success in large part to their decentralised business model, which has stayed the same since the 1970s.
“It’s a business model with the same kind of values that are important to me: a belief in human nature and that people want to do good things well; putting the customer’s best interests at the very heart of everything we do, which is why we have no sales or volumes targets, nor the bonuses that often go with them; and a long-term perspective in all that we do – our customer relationships, and how we run the bank,” he tells The LINK.
“Our customer-focused culture and values are what gives us our competitive advantage, and this in turn has led to commercial success. We have the highest credit rating of any major international bank, the highest levels of customer satisfaction in an independent survey of British bank customers, and we were, just last year, rated Britain’s Most Admired Bank by our peers.”
With a business model that places local branches at its core, Handelsbanken has its own approach to new trends within digital banking solutions. Instead of replacing the personal experience with an app or similar, the bank views these technological advances as complementary to the face-to-face relationship banking model that they know their customers value highly.
“Some banks are choosing to replace local branches by investing money in different digital solutions. We don’t do that, we offer digital solutions as a new way for the customer to reach their local branch. Thus Handelsbanken’s customers today have more possibilities to reach us than they had in the past, but digital will never replace a branch – our mobile apps and internet banking simply provide another way for our customers to meet the bank,” Sorensen says.
With Brexit looming, Sorensen is confident that Handelsbanken will continue to prosper and serve its customers in the UK market. This, he says, will not change whether the UK is inside or outside the EU.
“We have seen bigger challenges in our 146 year history than one country leaving the European Union. A family or a business in Cambridge or in Manchester will still need a bank, they will still need a mortgage loan, they will still need a debit card and a cash management solution for the business and so on. This doesn’t depend on whether the UK is part of the EU or not,” he tells The LINK.
“Unemployment may rise, house prices could fall, but these things have always happened over the economic cycle. We always deal with challenges and we will deal with this one as well. What may have to change are technicalities like how we are organised here in the UK. Today we operate in the legal form of a branch of Handelsbanken in Sweden, and we might need to review that arrangement. But we will deal with that as we do all other business challenges. For our customers it is business as usual.“
What motivates you about your job on a Monday morning?
Just as my 2,100 colleagues here at Handelsbanken UK are motivated: by working for a great bank and having influence, taking ownership, and enjoying the ability to make a real difference in our day-to-day roles. I find it very stimulating to make decisions and take responsibility for my own day.
What is the best thing about your job?
We give our people the chance and responsibility to make their own decisions, wherever they are within the organisation. Having a flat, decentralised organisational structure is a way to empower people and I think that’s something that everyone at Handelsbanken loves. Being organised in this way also gives us transparency and, if somebody does a really good job, he or she will be noticed.
How does this kind of leadership work?
It’s a matter of using your common sense, and to believe that people in general want to do good things. It’s also a matter of respect for our staff and for our customers, about trusting them. As a leader, it’s important that you give people responsibility and that you don’t go in and change it when they come up with a solution that is different from what you would have done yourself. Most of the time people make good decisions even if these may be different from what you would have chosen to do. Giving people responsibility is also a great way to learn from others.