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A far cry from chips and socks

SARAH Deaves began her banking career as a cashier for NatWest. Today, she is chief executive of Coutts, the first female to occupy the position in the 314-year history of the ‘Queen’s Bank’.

It is a long way from the days when she worked in the laundry at Stowe School and peeled potatoes for the students on its annual summer schools. "Boys’ socks that have been in a plastic bag for a week do not make for a pleasant smell," she recalls.

Having moved from her childhood home in the village of Gawcott near Buckingham to study at university and then launch what has been a rise to banking prominence, Sarah’s focus is once again on north Buckinghamshire as Coutts opens its new office in Central Milton Keynes.

The bank’s headquarters in The Strand have been its home since 1739 but Coutts – now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland – has embarked on a major regional expansion programme. It already has offices in Cambridge and Oxford.

"We were looking for a sweet spot in the middle and found Milton Keynes to be that sweet spot," says Sarah. "There is a huge amount of emerging wealth in the area coming from the corporate sector and there is a very interesting range of people in the region.

"The Milton Keynes office fits within the growth we have invested in over the last few years. It is really the hub of an area of exciting wealth development."

The opening of Coutts’ Milton Keynes office has brought Sarah back to her roots. She grew up in Buckingham, where her father Alan was an architect, Rotarian and town councillor. She was educated at the Royal Latin School – she was head girl in her final year – before leaving in 1979 to study for a geography degree at Oxford.

"Buckingham is a fantastic place," Sarah recalls. "The Latin gave me a wonderful start in life and when I go back, which is only occasionally now, it is wonderful to see that it is still thriving."

Those were the days when the Royal Latin took in boarders, children of families who were based abroad in the services. "It was very cosmopolitan in that sense but that meant that we had a broader view of life."

Andrew Cooper, the Royal Latin’s current deputy headteacher, was a boarding house master in 1979. He recalls that, after Sarah left, then-headteacher George Embleton used her as a role model to his pupils.

"She had a natural authority and wisdom, recognised by staff and fellow pupils," says Mr Cooper. "She was a born leader and was a real success as Head Girl in 1979, leading the prefects and student body through tact, efficiency and thoughtfulness."

A keen tennis, hockey and badminton player, Sarah became one of the first Royal Latin pupils to go to Oxford University. It was a milestone for the school too. "Filling in the application form was like a team effort," she says. "The school had to bring people in to help prepare me for my interview."

For her geography MA degree at Oxford, her thesis compared Milton Keynes to a new town in France. "I was looking at how the planners had tried to create a sense of community in the design of the city. The interesting thing is that Milton Keynes, for my generation, has always been there. But, not having seen it for a while, it has become the most beautiful green oasis. It really is quite striking."

After completing her degree at St John’s College, Sarah joined NatWest in 1983. From 1997, she ran NatWest’s co-branding division before moving two years later to head up NatWest Commercial Cards.

She then became managing director, own brand businesses for the Royal Bank of Scotland, with responsibility for Lombard Direct and DirectLine Financial Services, before joining Coutts as its chief operating officer in January 2002.

She became the bank’s first female chief executive ten months later and also is the current chair of the Private Banking Panel of the British Bankers Association. She has two young children, lives in north London and, as well as her MA, has a MBA from Warwick Business School.

Coutts is the international private banking arm of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It also has a commercial operation focusing on 3,000 owner manager businesses.