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Ulster Bank boss Richard Donnan: ‘At just 14 I asked if I could get a job in the bank - my passion was to get into work’

Margaret Canning speaks to Ulster Bank boss Richard Donnan about its support for the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, his career and life as a 'soccer mom'

By Margaret Canning

His sunny outlook earned him the nickname 'Smiler' while he was at primary school on the Ards peninsula. And Richard Donnan, head of Ulster Bank - the title sponsor of this week's Belfast Telegraph Business Awards - continues to apply a positive attitude towards life and work.

That extends to getting up at 5.30am every morning and enjoying the scenic peninsula on his long walks and runs from his home at Greyabbey to Ballywalter.

Richard, whose full title is managing director of corporate and commercial and head of NI, said the bank is delighted with its new title sponsorship of the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, which take place on Thursday in Belfast's Crowne Plaza Hotel.

He said:"We were really keen to work with a partner to showcase the best of business in Northern Ireland. I believe there's a lot of companies doing great things."

This year, the awards include two new categories - Best Emerging Start-up Business of the Year, and Best Healthcare SME of the Year.

Both sectors are close to his heart. Ulster Bank has set up Entrepreneurial Spark, a hub for emerging businesses, in its former branch in Belfast's Lombard Street. The bank has also financed some major transactions in the healthcare sector, including the funding of the new Maryland Care Home in Castlereagh.

"The firms in the hub now have turnover of £12m through the businesses, and that makes Entrepreneurial Spark the fastest-growing business accelerator in Europe," he added.

"And around 130 staff - including myself - are now going through an entrepreneurial development academy so they can learn the coaching and support skills needed to help companies."

Richard has been married to Janet for 24 years and lives in Greyabbey with their three children. They are active members of the Baptist Church - Janet's father was a Baptist minister.

"One of the key roles of a bank is to support strong and sustainable communities - providing meaningful help and acting with integrity. I find that fits very well with my faith and what I do in working with customers every day," he said.

And he jokes that he's now a 'soccer mom' as his 16-year-old daughter N aomi has been chosen to play football for Linfield Ladies.

Son Ryan is 14 and choosing his GCSEs, while Adam (20) is working towards a Higher Apprenticeship with business advisers PwC.

Ulster Bank holds a share of 23 to 24% of Northern Ireland's current account market, and a 30% share of the business side of the market. It's part of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which is 72% owned by the tax payer. Last week the group reported a quarterly profit of £259m - its first quarterly profit since early 2015. Ulster Bank's performance is counted in RBS's results.

In Ulster Bank, he said mortgage lending grew in 2015/2016, and there has been healthy demand for its business lending.

But the parent bank also faces a shareholder court case, and a potential fine from the US Department of Justice over the sale of mortgage-backed securities before the financial crisis hit. It also faced a barrage of negative publicity over allegations that its Global Restructuring Group (GRG) - set up to help failing companies during the downturn - actually ended up profiting from the firms they were supposed to help.

Richard said Ulster Bank didn't see a fall-off in business customers as a result of the negative publicity surrounding the GRG.

"There was nothing dramatic though I don't want to undermine the difficulties that a small number of customers went through. It's not dramatically impacting on market share," he said.

Major business clients include Learning Pool, a Londonderry-based e-learning company which acquired another business in England, Mind Click, last year. Ulster Bank helped fund the transaction.

In addition, the bank funds Prestige Insurance, the company which owns Abbey Insurance and last year acquired Open and Direct. It also supported ship fit-out giant MJM Marine in its £30m investment acquisition of Damolly Retail Park.

Richard said he's keeping his ear to the ground on any impact of Brexit on customers.

"I have had a whole series of lunches around Northern Ireland with eight or nine small firms and the sense I get is that there is really strong demand coming through. For bigger businesses, we're not seeing them stopping things but maybe they are being a bit quieter and taking more time to give themselves more options."

Richard is a career banker who's been with Ulster Bank for nearly 28 years. He took the top job two years ago and first inquired about joining at the age of 14.

"My parents were customers in Donaghadee so I went in with my father to ask how could I get a job with the bank," he said.

They told him to apply next time jobs were advertised but a recession set in and recruitment slowed down. He finished his A-levels at Regent House in Newtownards and went to study business studies at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown.

"I didn't want to go and I struggled with the lack of structure and only had 12 hours a week. My passion was to get into work."

Richard got his start in branch banking, where he worked for three years, before moving to other parts of the company. But at the same time, he finished his degree and completed more banking exams and even an MBA.

His studies have included a Certified Bank Director programme.

He said: "I like being busy. My father was a postman and my mother's family were farmers. Getting up early in the morning at 5.30am and staying busy is what they do. I've never shirked hard work and I like being busy, and I like getting out and getting down to it. And at that time, working during the day and studying in the evening was what worked for me."

He has also completed a course in working with customers with Alzheimer's Disease, accredited by the Alzheimer's Society.

Other interests include chairing the company behind the Mac Theatre, as well as membership of the council of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, and membership of the board of trustees at the Centre for Competitiveness.

Richard also described his start in life in glowing terms. He grew up on a housing estate in Millisle with one sister, his father Raymond, who was a postman, and his mother Jane Patricia, who came from a farming and fishing family.

"We were two minutes from the beach and two minutes from the barley fields. Life was great. My nickname at school was Smiler. My work ethic and my personal values have very much come from my parents who always encouraged us to do our best," he said.

However, he had admitted that banking has been on a rocky road in recent years. Ulster Bank also suffered the impact of a failure in its IT systems, which hit thousands of customers in 2012.

"It became about getting back to our roots and building a bank for the future. I knew the challenge that lay ahead but believe we have a really good, loyal customer base and capable staff," he said.

The bank - along with the other three main banks in Northern Ireland, Bank of Ireland, First Trust and Danske Bank - has also closed branches as use of internet and mobile banking grows.

A further nine Ulster Bank branches in Belfast, Londonderry and Bangor will close in October, leaving it with 56.

"My sense of it is that it's something we keep under review. There has been more change in how people do their banking in the last five years than over the last 25 years," said Richard. "We're seeing 1.25 million logins into mobile banking a week, and an increase of about 40% in the last 18 to 24 months. It's transforming things. But we will maintain a face-to-face presence. We will always have a branch network but that will continue to evolve and change."

And he said he is looking forward to a wonderful awards night at the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in partnership with Ulster Bank on Thursday.

"We are so happy to be associated with it. I really enjoyed being part of the judging panel and getting under the skin of the success of so many companies. When you see such success, it really does give you great hope," Richard added.

"Many firms had come through adversity and into even bigger success.

"Their business model may have been impacted by a traumatic event so they have had to change their approach and how they do business, but now they are better than ever."

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