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Carlos Torres Vila: "BBVA is the financial sector's most appealing corporate project"

After ten years with BBVA Group, the last three and a half as CEO, Carlos Torres Vila is expected to replace Francisco González as the bank’s executive chairman on January 1, 2019. We spoke with Carlos about his vision and future plans for the Group.

Carlos Torres Vila began his job as CEO in May 2015. One of his first decisions was to introduce a more collaborative approach to working, promoting an open-plan workspace, without offices or other barriers to more direct communication, and less hierarchy within teams. The decision was part of a much more profound cultural change falling within BBVA’s transformation process. A change strongly anchored in the values: The customer comes first, we think big and we are one team.

When we join him for this interview, he is seated – together with his team – at his desk, a desk just like all the other employee desks at Madrid’s BBVA offices, known as ‘La Vela’.

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Carlos Torres Vila became CEO in May 2015.

Q: What does the upcoming change of chairman mean to BBVA?

A: Our current chairman recognized -before anyone else in the financial sector- the challenge of competing in the digital age. He is a visionary, and the anticipation he had more than a decade ago triggered the transformation process that is BBVA’s fundamental priority today. All of us – more than 130,000 people in the Group – work in the context of this vision. This change ensures our strategy’s continuity and strengthens our transformation process. Currently, BBVA is the financial sector’s most appealing corporate project.

Q: With your new appointment approaching, if you look back, what moments in your career have stood out?

A: At 22, I began working in corporate finance. At that time, I was responsible for the acquisition structure of a business in Galicia, and the buyer sent me to put a changeover plan into place. I think experiencing so much, so young, and in such a short time, shaped my career. It was a bonus that I was able to spend more time in Galicia, which I have always considered home.

I spent the next stage of my career at McKinsey, where I spent 12 years. During that time, I learned a series of values that have stayed with me throughout my career, such as putting the customer above all else, discipline, and the importance of saying what you really think.

In 2002 I joined Endesa, first as director of corporate strategy, and from 2007 as chief financial officer. It was another special, fascinating time of which I have great memories, a time when the company went through successive IPOs, an experience I was able to live and breathe.

I came to BBVA on September 15, 2008. I will never forget the date because it was the same day Lehman Brothers went under. After an initial period as director of strategy and corporate expansion, I had the opportunity to lead the Digital Banking unit, where the Group’s transformation became my focus. During the last three and half years as CEO, I have seen how that transformation has progressed both in the company itself as well as in the solutions we provide our customers.

Q: What qualities do you think a leader should have?

A: For me, the most important quality is to be genuine. It’s a simple yet profound concept: it means speaking one’s mind and not what we think others want to hear. It’s about doing the right thing, not what’s easy. Being loyal to the institution you work for: its mission, its values. Being genuine means having your own point of view, having an independent opinion, and making the difficult decisions needed to work for what you believe.

Q: If we focus on your current role as CEO, what would you emphasize?

A: Today BBVA is a very different company from the one I joined in 2008. Those first years were marked by a deep financial crisis, but BBVA already had a clear vision about the industry’s need for transformation.

Since 2015, I would single out the progress we have made in executing our strategy and the profound cultural transformation we’ve experienced in recent years.

Today, BBVA is an agile, fast-paced organization, with quarterly planning cycles and execution, with independent and multidisciplinary teams delivering new solutions and products to our customers each quarter. The best example is our mobile app, which only gets better. All our efforts are based on the mission we defined in 2016: ‘To bring the age of opportunity to everyone.’ And today’s opportunities are in the digital world.

“Our chairman recognized -before anyone else in the financial sector- the challenge of competing in the digital age.”

Customers increasingly use digital channels – especially the smartphone – to interact with us. Almost half our customer base is made up of digital customers, and next year, half our customers will be mobile. Customers who use digital channels are more satisfied, they interact more with the bank, and are more loyal.

This common focus on transformation across all our operating countries is supported by values, something that has historically been an inherent part of BBVA’s culture. In 2017 we specified three key values: 1) ‘The customer comes first,’ which means putting ourselves in their place, always putting customers’ interests before everything else, avoiding conflicts of interest, and solving their problems; 2) ‘We think big’ not only because we are ambitious, but also because we question everything we do in order to uncover new ways of doing things, innovating, always looking for excellence to surprise our customers; and 3) ‘We are one team,’ which has to do with our commitment to our teams, trusting one another, and adopting BBVA Group’s objectives as our own.

Carlos Torres Vila is expected to succeed Francisco González as the bank’s executive chairman on January 1, 2019.

Q: What are the main challenges and opportunities that lay ahead for BBVA?

A: We have a fantastic opportunity: to help our customers make better decisions with their money and their lives in general, to anticipate their problems, simplifying the management of their money, helping them meet professional or life goals. That is where I see BBVA’s role in the future, as a personal advisor helping our customers make the decisions that are right for them so they can reach their goals, so money isn’t a hindrance, but rather an enabler.

Customer data is key to creating opportunities because if we apply technology to data we can get insights, anticipate problems, make better recommendations, and ultimately provide our customers with added value. At BBVA we believe customer consent is key to using their data, and customers have to trust BBVA to give us that consent. We are starting from a good position of trust, and thanks to the added value we are driving, this trust will continue to grow, creating a true virtuous cycle.

Q: If you vacate your position as CEO, who will take over for you?

A: Like all transition processes, this has to be done in an orderly, well-planned out way. Selecting the CEO is part of this process and will be addressed by the board over the next three months. The good news is that BBVA has a lot of talent ready to tackle this change.

Additional information

  • Born in Salamanca, 1966, he considers himself a Galician, as his parents.
  • Married to an architect and father of three children, apart from being with his family, his hobbies include, traveling, reading, particularly on science-related topics (genetics, evolution, physics, etc.) and lots of sports (bicycle, ‘running’ and skiing, among others).
  • In 1988 he earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and a B.S. in Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he later also received an M.S. at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He also received a B.A. in Law from UNED (Spain) in 1994.
  • Carlos Torres Vila joined BBVA in 2008 as head of Strategy and Corporate Development and a member of its Executive Committee. In 2014 he became head of Digital Banking until May 2015 when he was appointed as Group’s CEO.
  • Before joining BBVA, he was Corporate Director of Strategy with Endesa since 2002 and CFO since 2007. He previously worked at McKinsey & Company for 12 years, where he became partner in 1997.
  •  Carlos Torres Vila is a member of the Board of Endeavor España and of the Governing Board of the Association for the Progress of Management (APD).

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