Scott Essex Sees Compliance as a Strategic Objective

The chief compliance officer for Citizens Financial Group watched from a front-row seat as compliance emerged from the shadows. Now, he’s building an effective and modern program that’s helping the newly independent bank succeed.

Scott Essex, Citizens Financial Group

In 2015, Citizens Financial Group had a pivotal year. That’s when the bank—which traces its origins back to 1828 and was officially established in 1871—became a standalone, publicly traded company. Now, after the largest commercial bank IPO in American history, Citizens is set up to become a major regional player.

Since the global financial crisis, leaders at Citizens Financial Group have worked together to make several important changes. They’ve grown business across commercial and consumer sectors, focused on the customer experience, invested in technology and digital channels, and improved risk management. Additionally, they’ve assembled a hybrid team of financial experts and thought leaders from across industries to help drive performance and to deliver better outcomes through calculated growth steps and improved financial measures.

Scott Essex is one of those leaders. He joined Citizens in 2014 and became the organization’s chief compliance officer in 2016. In that time, he has been instrumental in building an effective compliance program that supports the growing bank’s strategic objectives. Essex is a well-respected compliance expert with two decades of experience in financial services and management consulting. But he actually began his career as an architect and engineer. “I’ve ended up far from the actual disciplines of building design and construction, but I’m using the same approaches to problem-solving to build effective systems and structures in finance,” Essex says.

Those systems are key for Citizens Financial Group’s new era as an independent bank. From 1988 to 2015, the organization operated as a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Essex helped build—and is now running—a compliance system designed to do more than protect against risk, liability, and penalty. He believes it can help Citizens compete. “Compliance today is totally different than it was when I started my career,” he says. “We’ve seen it change from a legal necessity into a strategic objective.” Essex has had a front-row seat to that evolution and is looking to use the lessons he’s learned along the way.

After redeveloping airports and leading billion-dollar projects for major consulting firms such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Essex wanted more stability in his professional life. That led him to a role at Bank of America, where he first encountered compliance while running change management for the consumer real estate division. Although finance was a new area for Essex, he discovered that Bank of America was the perfect training ground. “They had talented minds from many industries,” he says. “I really took advantage of the opportunity to learn from the best and brightest.”

Soon, Essex accepted a position as a compliance executive. That was in 2004, and compliance was migrating out of legal’s back office into a standalone risk discipline. “The scale of business was going up, and compliance became more process based,” he explains. “Subject-matter expertise was important, but I also saw the chance to apply some of the analytical thinking and creative problem-solving that I learned from my training as an architect and engineer.”

Essex started working on a different blueprint—one for a comprehensive compliance program that could have a major impact on a business. He was interested in more than preventing a compliance failure. Essex wanted to merge the leading legal, financial, and operational expertise into a new compliance capability to meet customer needs and regulatory requirements, reduce costs, uncover growth opportunities, and outpace competitors.

After six years at Bank of America, Essex left in 2008 for new compliance-related opportunities at Wachovia, which was acquired by Wells Fargo shortly after he was hired. During that time, compliance changed dramatically in the wake of the global financial crisis. Legislation such as Dodd-Frank in the United States and similar laws elsewhere made compliance front and center. “The amount of data coming at banks increased along with the globalization of business and the growing requirements around privacy and transparency,” Essex says. “Compliance became a huge expense, and that made it even more of a strategic imperative.”

In 2011, Essex accepted a job with Toronto-Dominion  Bank Group, where he managed the development of a cross-border, international compliance program. There, he started to introduce new technologies, tools, and analytics designed to handle compliance matters at the post-crisis pace.

Today, Essex continues to implement similar measures at Citizens that are helping the bank make up ground in its new structure. “You simply can’t do compliance today the same way it was done before the financial crisis,” Essex says. “A modern compliance program has to do so much more, and that’s especially true for Citizens during this new part of our history.”

Citizens wants to avoid any missteps on the journey to becoming a top performing regional bank and helping customers achieve their potential, Essex says. To help Citizens comply with laws and regulations while providing fair and responsible services to customers, Essex has established process automation and leveraged robotics, computer analytics, and other tools.

Through its compliance program, Citizens Financial Group has taken several important steps. The organization monitors thousands of transactions in real time to uncover inconsistencies that point to financial crime. It also mines customer complaints to look for compliance concerns, and it monitors and reconciles conflicts on complex business transactions. Each improvement that Essex can build into the process mitigates risks, prevents compliance failures, and enables employees to focus on customer and client needs while meeting regulatory expectations.

Although Essex pivoted from his expected career path, compliance more than satisfies his inquisitive mind. “I’m still taking a design-thinking approach toward a solution. There’s an ultimate vision, operating plan, testing, iterations, and continuous improvements,” Essex says. “It’s something new every day.”

As Essex and his counterparts across the organization move forward, they have Citizens positioned for success by running the bank better.


KPMG LLP congratulates Scott Essex and Citizens Financial Group!

Congratulations on your impressive career and accomplishments in compliance within the financial services industry. We look forward to continuing our strategic relationship with you and Citizens.

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