In this episode of Fireside Chat, we sit down with Robert P. Kelly, former Chairman and CEO, Bank of New York Mellon, to discuss lessons learned from the 2008-2009 financial crisis that are relevant to health systems and all organizations working through the current COVID crisis. We also discussed the macro-economics of the pandemic and the challenges organizations will face in the recovery.
Robert (Bob) Kelly is the former Chief Executive Officer of The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation
(NYSE: BK), a global financial services growth company operating in 37 countries and serving
institutions and high-net-worth individuals in more than 100 markets worldwide. He served as chairman, president and chief executive officer of Mellon Financial Corporation from February 2006 until its merger with The Bank of New York Company, Inc. At Mellon, he accelerated the company’s performance and sharpened its focus on client services. He was named a top 10 bank CEO in 2006 and 2007 by U.S. Banker magazine.
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Bob Kelly 0:03
The main lessons I would have is, and I would speak to any senior executives or board members, is really watch your balance sheet. Really listen to what your customers are telling you. Maintain as much capital as you can and maintain lots of access to funding. Because we don’t know exactly how long this is going to be going on for.
Gary Bisbee 0:25
That was Robert Kelly, former CEO Bank of New York Mellon reviewing lessons learned from the 2008/ 2009 financial crisis that are relevant to health systems and all organizations working through the current COVID crisis. I’m Gary Bisbee and this is Fireside Chat. Bob grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and became the chairman and CEO of one of the largest US-based international banks. He has an in-depth view of the 2008/2009 financial crisis, and he played an integral role in resolving it. He has a deep understanding of macroeconomics and how it is playing out because of COVID. Bob sat on the board of Novant Health and has an excellent understanding of large health systems. He has formulated lessons learned about customers by banks that apply directly to health organizations. Looking forward, Bob is more concerned about unemployment than a recession. As he discusses, it might take 3-5 years to return to the 3.5% unemployment rate that we experienced pre-COVID. Let’s listen.
Bob Kelly 1:29
The worries I have is unemployment. The absolute peak unemployment rate in the financial crisis was 10%. We were at 13% just a month or two ago. We’re currently a little over 11%. We haven’t even gotten down to 10% yet. My guess is, unfortunately, is that it will take 3-5 years to get back to where we were pre-crisis.
Gary Bisbee 1:56
I’m delighted to welcome Bob Kelly to the microphone. Good afternoon, Bob, and welcome.
Bob Kelly 2:04
Thanks, Gary. It’s a real pleasure to do this.
Gary Bisbee 2:06
Well, we’re pleased to have you at this microphone. Let’s kick off our conversation and learn more about you and your background. You were born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, your dad was an accountant. And I wondered if the fact that your father was an accountant led you into public accounting at KPMG.
Bob Kelly 2:23
It’s funny, you should say that. I do recall when I was like 17, in grade 11, I was thinking about what was I going to do in college and probably the two post-grad things you could do if I went beyond my undergrad would have been either law or accounting and I mentioned it to my dad. My dad said, “Don’t become a lawyer. It’s really boring.” I said, “It’s really boring?” He said, “Yeah,” he said, he said, “It’s all based upon precedent and you don’t get to have real thoughts.” I was thinking, man, if an accountant is saying law is boring, it’s gonna be really boring. So I stepped away from law and I guess I did accounting, and I had a couple of really good profs that really influenced me as well. I’m really glad I did it
Gary Bisbee 3:03
Was that your first professional position then, was at KPMG?
Bob Kelly 3:07
Yeah. Right out of school I took the ACPA. At the time they call them Charity Accountants, CAs, but they’re now called CPAs. And I had a number of years with KPMG and it was great training, quite frankly, in the financial world.
Gary Bisbee 3:22
What were the circumstances of your becoming CFO at Toronto Dominion Bank?
Bob Kelly 3:27
I was working in a trading room in London and with Toronto Dominion Bank and being reasonably successful in the derivatives business, and my accounting background, the CPA background came back to haunt me a little bit. Our CFO was incredibly successful and just a terrific human being, came down with a serious health issue and asked me to come back because of new financial markets and I had the accounting background, and they asked me if I could become CFO. And it was kind of an astonishing thing, I think I was only 37 at the time, and I always felt that I had way more responsibility than I really deserved. But that’s basically how it happened. It was great fun. I learned so much from that experience.
Gary Bisbee 4:11
So at what point did you start thinking, you know, I think I’d like to be a CEO.
Bob Kelly 4:16
I can’t remember the exact moment that that happened. I do recall one time when I was in my late 20s, I was speaking to a friend who was a captain in the Canadian Air Force. And he’s an engineer, and he was a captain and he had 200 people working for him. And he maintained all the helicopter fleet of the Canadian Air Force. And I said, “Wow, that’s amazing. You have 200 people that work for you. And you have all that responsibility, and presumably a huge budget. Like when do you become a General?” And he said, “Well, I’ll never be a General.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Only fighter pilots become Generals.” And it had a big influence, Gary. I decided, well, maybe I don’t want to be known just as an accountant and maybe I should take an MBA and try to get in the fighter pilot business and in business or be generating revenue and having customer contact. And that’s what I kind of decided to do. And in the end, I wanted to be in a position where I was making the decisions versus somebody else.
Gary Bisbee 5:24
What was your first position as a CEO?
Bob Kelly 5:27
It was Mellon Financial Corporation in Pittsburgh. That was announced in late 2005. I think I began in 2006. It was a large private bank and a very large Asset Management Complex. It was very big in the financial asset administration business, which is technical accounting and valuation type businesses, and it didn’t have a branch bank, but it was a very exciting business and very high growth without requiring a lot of new capital.
Gary Bisbee 5:57
And then what were the circumstances of becoming CEO Bank of New York Mellon?
Bob Kelly 6:02
Well, we’re a big company at Mellon Financial, but the CEO of Bank of New York called me up one day and he said, “Gee, Bob, you’re in the same business as we are. We think scale matters. Why don’t we kind of talk about, if we could potentially do something together, it might be really good for Asset Management, the businesses.” So one thing led to another and the board decided that I should be the CEO of the new company and the CEO of a Bank in New York was getting close to retirement regardless and was quite amenable to that. That’s how it happened through a merger in 2007.
Gary Bisbee 6:36
What lessons did you learn from Mellon Financials, which was your first CEO position that carried on to the Bank of New York Mellon position?
Bob Kelly 6:46
I want to narrow it down to two things. I would say it would be, get the big things right. And surround yourself with a fantastic team of people. You get the strategy, the big stuff and the people right, good things will happen over time.
Gary Bisbee 7:01
Did you ever stop and think at any point along the line, here’s this kid who grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and became the CEO of one of the largest banks in the world?
Bob Kelly 7:11
Yes. It’s kind of bizarre actually, Gary, how things happen. It’s not a random walk. But it involves a lot of luck and some hard work. And there’s not a lot of jobs like that. I was very fortunate. It was a great experience. And it was even a great experience going through the financial crisis, and leading the company through that as well. It was hard, but I would never have given up the opportunity.
Gary Bisbee 7:37
Let’s explore that a bit. So what role did Bank of New York Mellon play in the 2008 financial crisis?
Bob Kelly 7:43
It was really twofold. Firstly, we helped the federal government through the Federal Reserve Board and Washington and Ben Bernanke and also Hank Paulson, we helped with a number of their Troubled Asset Programs to administrate it and to get them up and running and make sure they worked properly across the United States and around the world. And I personally had the honor of representing all the banks in New York during discussions and critical debates with the Federal Reserve Board in Washington on an ongoing basis. I had the pleasure of being at the Fed probably every month, for a period of at least a year or two.
Gary Bisbee 8:22
Who is the most interesting character that you met throughout all of this 2008 financial crisis?
Bob Kelly 8:28
I guess I would have to put, at the top of the list, President Obama. I had the pleasure of being in the White House, two or three times, met the president to talk about issues, a small group of us to talk about the economy, rotating what else we could do to help small business and consumers, how are things feeling, did we see improvements. That obviously was pretty heady stuff, and then standing there outside the White House afterward and meeting with the press. The other would be a tag team match between Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson. Both incredibly talented people in different ways. One more academic and the other one more market-oriented. But both brilliant, both incredibly hardworking and focused, and dedicated to getting us out of the mess we were in. And we’re so fortunate as a country to have them there at the time of the financial crisis.
Gary Bisbee 9:22
What was the most challenging decision that you had to make during the crisis?
Bob Kelly 9:27
I couldn’t really narrow it down to one decision. I do have a great recollection of one day during the crisis, I was in my office, and I never closed the door to my office, unless it was a very sensitive human resource matter. But I did encourage the team to come tell me if anything really bad was happening. And I do recall one day there was a lineup of five or six people who wanted to come in and see me. And obviously, I didn’t want people standing around outside waiting to come in to talk to me. So what I did was I actually sorted the issues in the lineup as what was the issue and I had to decide immediately, could this be an issue that would actually bring the bank to an end or not? And if not, let’s go on to the next issue. So it’s pretty intense through the summer of 2008, right through to probably January of 2009.
Gary Bisbee 10:21
We’re in the middle of the COVID crisis now, which is a public health crisis, but also obviously a major effect on the US and the world economy. The 2008 crisis was a financial crisis, but did you learn any lessons there, Bob, that could be useful as we think about the COVID crisis?
Bob Kelly 10:41
You’re right. They’re very different. One was a financial crisis, and the other one was a healthcare crisis that led to an economic crisis. But there are a lot of similarities. The main thing is to remember I think, at this point is, it’s going to end. We will come over this. It’s absolutely fine. I’ve been shocked at how quickly the financial markets have stabilized and actually improved to almost the levels that they were pre COVID crisis. The main lessons I would have is, and I would speak to any senior executives or board members, is really watch your balance sheet. Really listen to what your customers are telling you. Maintain as much capital as you can and maintain lots of access to funding. Because we don’t know exactly how long this is going to be going on for. Most economists feel there is going to be growth in the fourth quarter. That’s possible. But it could go on longer. It may not be a B, it may be a W or maybe an L shape. Who knows. But flexibility in a time like this is incredibly important.
Gary Bisbee 11:44
The COVID crisis has caused the US to pump trillions into the economy. Looks like there’s another trillion or so that Congress is thinking about. Is there a danger that we will have a serious, long-standing recession? I know the markets have come back, but what about the economic recession, Bob?
Bob Kelly 12:03
I think we’ll come out of the recession. That’s not my main worry. A recession is defined as two-quarters of declining GDP, gross domestic product. And we definitely will have a declining GDP for the, we did for the second quarter, we will in the third quarter, and hopefully, we’ll have a little bit of growth in the fourth quarter. So, from a low base, I would expect we’ll come out of the recession in the fourth quarter or sometime early next year. The worries I have is unemployment. The absolute peak unemployment rate in the financial crisis was 10%. We were at 13% just a month or two ago. We’re currently a little over 11%. We haven’t even gotten down to 10% yet. My guess is, unfortunately, is that it will take 3-5 years to get back to where we were pre-crisis. In other words, back to say 3.5%. That’s going to be hard for a lot of people. And it’ll have a lot of policy implications as well in terms of taxes and spending and how we think about our economy generally and making sure that we look after most disadvantaged citizens. From the slightly longer concern I have, it does seem that we’re in a period of time right now with both parties, and this is pre-COVID, as well as now, where deficits just don’t matter and I find that very scary. We’re running gigantic deficits and at some point, we’ve got to balance our books. And hopefully, we’ll do that sometime in the next two or three years.
Gary Bisbee 13:41
Thinking about the world economy and the US’s place in it, is there any danger that the world economy could spin out of control and cause a peripheral problem with the US economy? How are you viewing that, Bob?
Bob Kelly 13:55
I don’t think so. Firstly, I think the governments have done tremendously aggressive things much more aggressive, by the way, than 2008 in terms of stimulus, and money going to individuals. Rates are back to zero again. And the United States is uniquely positioned, in that we are the reserve currency of the planet. And we are not that dependent upon exports, compared to other countries like Germany or Japan, where they’ve got to sell a lot of stuff internationally with China, for example. They’ve got to sell a lot of stuff internationally and if their customers aren’t in good shape, that will mean they’re not in good shape. So I think on a relative basis, United States is in better shape than many other economies around the world, and that’s part of the reason why our stock market has basically led the come back over the last two or three months.
Gary Bisbee 14:51
What about your old posting at Bank of New York Mellon? How are the large international commercial banks faring in the current economy?
Bob Kelly 15:00
Well, the American international banks are doing quite well. Because, one of the big learnings, or several big learnings from the last recession, was that let’s make sure the banks firstly, really clean up the balance sheets and say goodbye to all the bad loans. They did that very quickly. Secondly, let’s make sure they have a lot of capital, which banks have much more capital than they did 10 years ago. And thirdly, they have an enormous amount of cash that they can bring to bear if need be. So they’re very, very liquid. The combination of those three things means that the US banking system is very strong. They’ve been able to mostly maintain their dividends, not entirely, but the Fed has input on that and influence on that and if need be, dividends can be cut as well or eliminated for a period of time and so everyone feels very comfortable that we are out of this. It’s different for the European banks. The Italian banks, for example, the German banks, for example, they did not put their problems behind them. They still had a lot of non-performing troubled assets on the balance sheet going into this recession, which is kind of hard to believe because it’s now 10 years later. And, they did not recapitalize like the American banks did. So internationally, there’s some pretty weak banks out there that are operating in pretty weak economies, which is not a good combination. So European banks are under considerable stress at the moment,
Gary Bisbee 16:33
Turning to the effect of the COVID crisis on leadership and governance, you’ve been very articulate about the point that there’s unique leadership and governance challenges coming out of the crisis. How has the COVID crisis influenced the work of the board of directors in our large companies?
Bob Kelly 16:50
Well, to start with those, you know, boards don’t get together very often. Might be five times, six times, seven times and it’d be rare to get together more than 10. So, they don’t often have an opportunity to get together and talk about issues and discuss things. And we are now facing many new challenges. The reality is most boards of directors have not met since January or February and it’s entirely possible boards won’t be meeting again until mid 2021. It may take that long for the vaccine to be out and for people to feel comfortable with getting on airplanes, particularly long flights. So that creates some unique challenges. The board of directors, usually they get together socially or over dinner, over a coffee and talk about individual issues and concerns they might have and explorer with management and leadership face-to-face what is happening in the company, what the outlook is for it, how it impacts strategy. And we can’t do that now. So the combination of directors not being able to spend time with each other one-on-one, combined with less access to the CEO or management, has led to some real challenges. And the good news, though, is that compared to 5 years ago, or 10 years ago, we have incredible video technology. Given Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime, it’s been reasonably effective. And it’s offset most of the disadvantages we have found over the past 3 or 4 months. There’s pros and cons to it, but it’s worked pretty well. The important questions in how it affects boards is a myriad. Your main focus should be on customers, employees, and shareholders. So what’s happening to your customers? If you’re in the healthcare business, if you’re in the hospitality business, transportation business, in an energy business or bank businesses, those companies are under enormous stress. It’s impacting sales. It’s impacting the customer experience. It’s impacting profitability. And you go on to the employees. How are they coping with working remotely? Is that working? Does the technology work? Does it not work? How stressed are they? How stressed are they not? How do you mix family life with working at home? Those are key questions. And of course, there is the question of the shareholders, because they’re watching revenue like crazy. If you’re a business model that’s online versus stores, you’re probably okay. But if you have a big retail presence, you will undoubtedly be under a lot of stress. There’ll be a lot of questions about earnings, there will be about, there’ll be questions about quality of assets, like you have to write down assets. What’s going to be happening to your accounts receivable? Do any of them have to be written down? Will they be able to pay dividends? Can they make payroll? Can they pay the bills? What’s the outlook for the business? What’s happening on the cyber side? Cybersecurity is always an issue but if all your employees are now working from home, cyber risks have probably gone up. And as we know, and as we are seeing in the press recently, there’s a lot of bad actors that are trying to take advantage of this environment on the cyber side. So it’s a busier, more intense environment than it was three or four months ago as the economy declined.
Gary Bisbee 20:14
Digging into the points that you’re making and looking at it expressly from the CEOs desk, how did the CEOs react to all of these changes, remote working and so on, new relationship to customers, virtual, how do you learn as a CEO, because your employees are expecting you to be the leader here?
Bob Kelly 20:37
Exactly. One of the hard, cold realities of COVID is, CEOs and the senior management leaders had not experienced anything like this before. They’d never had background or training in a pandemic or where none of your employees can work together and you can’t have direct customer access. So it’s tough. And you have to adapt incredibly quickly to that. So from a CEO standpoint, they’re not going to be hanging out in their office after going up the elevator every day. Having to work then from home. Now they’ve got to become an even better communicator than they were in the past. They have to be more approachable. They have to be sensitive to how their employees are doing. They’ve got to keep in touch with their customers. They’ve got to be asking a lot of questions. Because without data and without knowledge, big big mistakes can be made. And I’m going to go back to the data comment as an example. You should be speaking to your employees all the time, either directly, through video, or through surveys and ask really good hard questions. How are you dealing with COVID? How can we help you? Are you happy from working at home, for example? Are you feeling well connected with your firm or not? Is your boss doing a good job at keeping you informed? Do you feel you have everything you need to be productive? You can go on and on and on in terms of the sort of questions you should be asking, and you should be summarizing that data and sharing it with your employees and sharing it with the board as well. It’s a much tougher business. And it’s been compounded by the George Floyd tragedy and Black Lives Matter movement that has occured at the same time. So it’s been extra challenging for everybody.
Gary Bisbee 22:29
How do you handle that kind of situation that comes up, Bob. It’s one thing to have the COVID public health crisis and another thing to have this social unrest. How do you think about that as a CEO?
Bob Kelly 22:43
We have a long history of issues in this country. Every country has, but particularly the US, I think. And it starts with being a better listener and it also means you have to be open to discussing these issues. And it should be a data-driven game. Does your company mirror the community at large? If you have a big office in Cincinnati and 20% of the population is black or 10% is Hispanic, it should be exactly the same in your company. If it isn’t, why isn’t it? And what does it mean about your hiring practices? What does it mean about your promotion practices? And are you mirroring the community at every level? Or is it just the white guys who are getting ahead? And if they are, what are you going to do about it? And I would disclose that to your employees too, make sure that they feel that you’re not hiding anything and to show that you want an inclusive, diverse environment. And you should be encouraging discussion on that. I know that some CEOs are hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, I think that’s a good idea too. I know most major corporations have diversity and inclusion committees. I think they are more important than in the past, and we all have to be supportive of our colleagues. It shouldn’t just be black or brown employees saying we need better lives and we need change over time. Everyone should be helping them on that because we’re a team and it’s our job to help each other. And change will only occur if everyone feels that needs to occur. So this is not a short term issue. It’s a longer-term issue. But we’ve got to do a better job than we’ve done in the past. Our employees demand it, and they deserve it. So do our customers.
Gary Bisbee 24:36
Well said. That’s certainly on point. Well, let’s turn to healthcare and commercial banking. There are a number of similarities, data regulations, customer focus, and so on. You sat on the Novant Board of Directors, so you have a close view of the large health systems. What were the circumstances of your joining the Novant Board, Bob?
Bob Kelly 24:58
Well, you know, we were major employers in North Carolina, given the merger at the time of First Union with Wachovia. They are based all around the state as well as the southeast generally. Healthcare is incredibly important in every community we are in. Traditionally Wachovia had a seat on the board of Novant Health and our CEO was pretty busy and he asked if I could help out by taking that seat on board. And I absolutely loved it because it was an industry I didn’t know much about, but I’d had a lot of interest in. And as a customer, I use healthcare systems in Canada, UK, as well as in the US over a period of years. It was fascinating, quite frankly.
Gary Bisbee 25:38
I’ll bet. First real insight exposure to healthcare must be fascinating. Did you form any opinions about the importance of data-heavy regulations to be similar between healthcare and commercial banking?
Bob Kelly 25:51
I did. I know that doctors, of course, are incredibly data-oriented and you see it every time you turn on one of the TV stations And so are bankers. In my opinion, the goal has to be improved outcomes at lower cost. We have the most expensive health care system in the world, as measured by percentage GDP. I think last time I looked higher health care costs, it’s 19% of GDP. The other G7 countries are anywhere from 8-12%. So we’re 50% more expensive than the most expensive next country and I think we could do a better job. There’s new technologies that are coming along that can help us do a better job and produce better outcomes for customers, customers being patients in this case. Everything from telemedicine, which I think is a great innovation, healthcare apps, whether it’s on your iPhone or your watch or some other mechanism. I think nurse practitioners becoming more and more prevalent in the healthcare system, I think, is a great development to keep quality high and outcomes very good. I think we do have to be, all the senior, just like the doctors, senior management, administration of large hospitals have to be very data-driven. They need plans on how they want to succeed over time and improving outcomes, they need to set goals. They need to build them into people’s annual appraisals. It should affect people’s staff ratings, the compensation, the promotion opportunities. You get what you measure and what you pay for. And I think improving our health care system should be an important goal for us in coming years. And I think we can do it actually, we spend so much money at it and our outcomes could be better than they are today when you make comparisons to other major countries.
Gary Bisbee 27:43
So health systems are criticized for not having enough focus on the consumer. Did commercial banks ever suffer from similar criticisms?
Bob Kelly 27:53
Definitely. I think bankers can be pretty boring people who are inward-looking, thinking about math and data themselves and adding financial instruments to the balance sheets. The banks that are successful are the ones that are more customer-focused and more community-focused, where they’re trying to build their customer base and trying to deepen their customer bases to provide better quality products and services at reasonable cost to the customers, to be part of the community, to be on the boards of health care systems, to be on the board of charities making a difference. And bankers can do a little better job on that, I’ll just say that. But one thing I will say is, baking is one of the few businesses that exist where sometimes you have to tell your customer, “No, you can’t have this product.” In other words, you have to decline them a loan. And a lot of people really don’t like that. But the banking business runs on very thin margins with not a lot of capital and unless you keep the quality of the loans very high, it’s bye bye bank next recession. And that is a bit of a fundamental difference. But I do worry about it. And I think, again, you’ve got to measure it and set goals and build it into people’s goals and compensation.
Gary Bisbee 29:17
Bob, this has been a terrific interview. I have one last question if I could. When you were an employer CEO, of course, you had to deal with healthcare costs from that standpoint. What was your view of healthcare and costs and did you fret about the fact that costs seemed to keep going up and it was hard to see how that was benefiting the employees?
Bob Kelly 29:42
Absolutely. One of the greatest frustrations I had while being a CFO and CEO, is every time we sat down to think about the financial plan for the next year, and we were looking at numbers every quarter was, if you were lucky, you can grow revenues 4 or 5%. But every year we were trying to grow revenues 4 or 5%, no matter what we did on the healthcare side, our healthcare costs were going up 10% per annum. If you impacted copays or the services provided, you cut back in other ways or shaved here, shaved there, it just doesn’t matter, costs were going up 10%. And it’s really unfair to the employers and it’s also unfair to the employees, of course, and most importantly, the employees. And it’s just not right. And I know you know, and all the health care providers know that this was a benefit that was provided by corporations after the Second World War. If you couldn’t add, if you couldn’t put salaries up, you added health care benefits. People don’t stay in companies for their whole careers anymore. Health care plans, I think should be portable, and they should be national, and there should be more choice and competition. And you shouldn’t necessarily make it to your company. Most countries don’t do that and I think it’s a competitive disadvantage we have against other countries. And it’s not fair to the employees. So, I think there’s a lot of things we can do to improve our healthcare system, particularly for employees and companies overall and it kind of starts with rethinking, what is the healthcare system we really need in the new world of the 21st century, where people are portable and they have multiple careers and costs are too high compared to other nations. There’s no one thing we can do, but there’s a long list of really good things we can do to improve it.
Gary Bisbee 31:36
Bob, thanks for the interview. It’s just terrific. Appreciate your advice and counsel and I think this is a great place to land. Thanks again.
Bob Kelly 31:44
My pleasure, Gary. Thank you.
Gary Bisbee 31:47
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