Why risk and compliance are becoming a route to the top

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Pre-meltdown, risk and compliance used to be seen by many as one of the more unglamorous, and certainly unsung, ends of investment banking... not any more.

With Nordic banks sailing through this summer's stress tests, and wanting to keep it that way, and the new Basel III capital adequacy standards continuing to focus minds, a knowledge of and background in risk and compliance are becoming, if not precisely a prerequisite for stepping into a top job, then certainly an extremely useful string to the ambitious banker's bow.

Last month, for example, Swedbank announced its latest round of management musical chairs, which saw Göran Bronner, the bank's chief risk officer promoted into the key chief financial officer role.

He is being replaced by Hkan Berg, the current head of Baltic banking, with Birgitte Bonnesen, the head of internal audit - another risk-related position, of course - stepping into the Baltic hot-seat.

The moves are symptomatic of the bank's focus since 2009 on improving governance, risk management and strengthening capitalisation, stressed president and CEO Michael Wolf.

"We are now entering a phase where we will increasingly focus on improvements regarding effectiveness, processes and quality," he added.

For Nordic banks, despite their relative health within the wider European context, demand for risk and compliance talent has moved up the agenda significantly, agrees Wictor Bonde, senior consultant, banking and financial services, at Michael Page International in Stockholm.

"There is a significant shortage of people with specialist knowledge around Basel III and insolvency. Someone with that sort of expertise who comes on to the market will often be snapped up within days," he says.

"For those looking to promote themselves and their career, some form of background in risk and compliance can be very useful because it is simply so important to the organisational agenda at the moment," he adds.

"The regulatory agenda is so high up now, including in the operations area and non front office, that having a compliance or regulatory background is definitely a plus point," says Mark Holmes, lead consultant at recruitment firm Holmes Search.

"What we are seeing now, especially within a lot of bigger banks, is COO roles within compliance, which can give people the experience to step up into a more senior position," he adds.