The IT foul-up was catastrophic but we have built resilience now
The Big Interview
Ross McEwan, head of Ulster Bank parent firm Royal Bank of Scotland, talks exclusively to Margaret Canning about all the issues, from branch closures to loan sales.
He's a cattle farmer as well as the boss of Ulster Bank parent company Royal Bank of Scotland. And straight-talking New Zealander Ross McEwan (57) has attacked the job with gusto since he succeeded Stephen Hester two years ago - and achieved results. "We're getting there," is how he sums it all up during a two-day visit to Belfast, where he meets branch staff, workers at the Danesfort call centre in Stranmillis, and mingles with clients at Riddel Hall.
One of the aims of his tenure has been to ease the bank towards private ownership after the bank's £45m bail-out by the Government in 2008. It's remained a 80% shareholder ever since. Last week, Chancellor George Osborne kick-started privatisation with an announcement that the sell-off of RBS shares will start in coming months.
Ahead of the Chancellor's Mansion House speech, Mr McEwan did say: "RBS needs to be a good sellable proposition. My job is to help create that bank and then it's up to the Government to go through a sale process to get that money bank."
With Osborne's announcement the day after he sits down with Business Telegraph, that's one item in Mr McEwan's in-tray taken care of. But he laughs and gives nothing away when asked how far into the prolonged privatisation process - likely to take about 10 years - he'll stay in the job.
But there's still a huge reputation repair job to be done on the bank, which has been torn asunder by IT foul-ups, foreign exchange and Libor-rigging fines - to say nothing of the alleged wrongdoing of its former crisis department, global restructuring group (GRG).
Its operations in Northern Ireland have been affected as RBS responded to pressure to shape up for privatisation. That's meant large-scale disposals of property loans on assets north and south which depreciated in the value over the downturn. Buyers have ranged from so-called vulture funds like Cerberus and institutions like Goldman Sachs and Davidson Kempner. The most recent announcement was a sale of assets including loans relating to Sirocco Works, with an original value of £1.4bn - sold to Cerberus for £205m.
Asked if he feels sympathy for those now facing dealing with a 'vulture', he says: "Some of those assets are better off in somebody else's hands that can nurture and create value over a longer term than we can. Some of those loans will be developed and more money poured into them than we would have been able to do so in a shorter period of time... If we hadn't made those moves we would still have loans that were in complete strife and we would have been focusing backwards instead of forwards."
He said the bank had now spent over £750m on rectifying its systems after the 2012 IT blunder, which saw hundreds of thousands of Ulster Bank customers in Northern Ireland and Republic locked out of their accounts for weeks. Customers at sister bank NatWest were also affected but for a shorter period than this side of the Irish Sea.
"My view and my executive team's view is that you should never nave your technology failing your customers and now we have some very robust systems in place," Mr McEwan says. "Having had the catastrophe of 2012, we have now built a lot of resilience back into the bank, which we're very proud of." Mr McEwan, who started his career on a Unilever graduate scheme after graduating in business studies from Massey University, is married with two grown-up daughters. All four McEwans now live in the UK, he says. One daughter has her own small business and the other works in communications.
Even thought he's not from a rural family himself, he and his wife Stephanie have a cattle farm in New Zealand which is operated by workers and has the "usual ups and downs of any business".
While the IT crisis of 2012 soured the view of many of its customers, the most severe adverse publicity arguably came from allegations over the global restructuring group. In theory, it existed to manage companies at risk of insolvency - but it's been alleged that GRG wrecked viable businesses, and extracted money from them. A report by the then-Government's entrepreneur in residence, Lawrence Tomlinson, contained some of the worse allegations - but a report from RBS written by law firm Clifford Chance said the allegations were without foundation.
And bank directors who gave evidence to a House of Commons committee suggested it was wrong to say that GRG had operated to extract profit - but RBS chairman Sir Philip Hampton later admitted it had been a profit centre. The Financial Conduct Authority will deliver a report on GRG in the next few months and McEwan won't indulge any speculation on what it will contain. But he says a failing business brings "emotion" with it. "Through any point where a business runs into some difficulty, it's a hugely emotional time both for customer and bank," he says.
"But there's no intention from any bank to put into administration or receivership a viable business. "I've not seen an organisation that intended to do terrible things to customers but it's a very tough time (when a business fails)... I'll wait and see what comes out of the review."
He added: "I think you've also got to put into context of what was happening in time. It was the largest financial criss since 1931, which hit the world and UK and hit Ireland.
"It was a trying time for customers and a very trying time for the bank itself. We lost billions and billions of shareholder value out of those loans and many customers lost their business. It was a very emotional time."
The future of Ulster Bank within Royal Bank of Scotland was a vexed issue over recent years, with the smaller operation regarded as a drag on RBS' profitability. Among the suggested solutions to 'how do we solve a problem like Ulster Bank' had been to sell it.
Now that Ulster Bank is profitable again, that's not looking quite as likely but nor, Mr McEwan stresses, is aligning Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland more closely with its sister NatWest in Great Britain.
"We are aligning the (north and south) businesses again. It should be the same," he says.
He is pragmatic about the erosion of branch banking - with Ulster Bank itself cutting branch numbers from around 100 in 2006 (90 retail branches and 10 business centres) ago to 64 at the moment.
The bank announced last year that 10 branches were to close by February this year - and Mr McEwan says there are no more planned "that I'm aware of".
"We have the largest branch network here in Northern Ireland with 64 branches. I think that's a reasonably good number for Northern Ireland. Customer patterns have changed quite dramatically and I think the branch will remain a very important part of our proposition for customers," he says.
And he said customers now had more means than ever of getting in touch with their bank. "We have added significant amounts of points of presence where customers can deal with us. With the Post Office we added 480 and we have also got the bank on wheels, which gets into rural communities. That's absolutely unique in Northern Ireland and there is no other bank that has a branch on wheels. That's a service that our customers do really enjoy particularly those in smaller villages and towns.
"Mobile and online are growing dramatically so that's where we need to be putting our investments."
This time, it's personal...
Q Do you prefer the city or country, and why?
A We're good in the city, but enjoy getting out at the weekend.
Q What are your favourite parts of the UK outside of London?
A I love getting out of the cities and seeing places like Henley on Thames, Chichester - those areas that are wonderful village-type environments that you can see some greenery and enjoy the fresh air.
Q Are you into sport?
A I was a great basketball fan and player both at school and university and after university. My wife and I met at university playing basketball. Now I do a lot of cycling because it's easy on the limbs and the knees in particular. I've played basketball and done running all my life so you tend to find some things wear out, like the knees, so the cycling's very good. It's nice to get out of the office.
Q What was the last book you read?
A That was the autobiography of Richie McCaw (The Real McCaw) who's the captain of the All Blacks, which is my favourite team. It's a very good read for all rugby fans anywhere in the world.
Q What was your last holiday, and what will be your next?
A My last holiday was at Christmas down to New Zealand with my wife and my next holiday will be a couple of weeks off around the Rugby World Cup (the event takes place in England in September). We have got some friends coming up from New Zealand so we'll spend time around the UK following the rugby and enjoying the environment.
Q How did you come to have a cattle farm?
A I thought it's really nice to have something tangible which you're building. Any businessperson likes to build things and that's what my wife and I have done. It employs people, it has its ups and downs and good years and bad years.
Q What's your take on 'free' banking?
A I've always been of the view that there's no such thing as free in any business. At some point customers will have to pay and need to pay. The UK has gotten itself into some interesting positions with things like hero ratings on savings accounts - why would you give those rates to someone who's totally new to your bank? And with zero balances on credit card transfers, you're just getting people trapped into debt.
Q What is your favourite band/album or your favourite piece of music, and why?
A Elton John because I am 'of that era'.