Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Ulster Bank boss hits back at Tomlinson's closure claims

Hitting back: Jim Brown

Ulster Bank's chief executive has hit back at claims by government adviser Laurence Tomlinson that the group has forced some viable businesses into bankruptcy.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Jim Brown said he had found no evidence to back up the claims made by Mr Tomlinson in a report commissioned by Westminster and released in November.

"Mr Tomlinson has never contacted me," Mr Brown said. "He has not provided me with any evidence of customers being mistreated by Ulster Bank and no evidence of any systematic issues in how we dealt with our customers. And I've seen no evidence myself, having looked at the issues which he has raised."

The allegations in question revolve around the Global Restructuring Group (GRG), the turnaround division of Ulster Bank's parent company RBS, which Mr Tomlinson's report said forced viable small businesses to the wall before the property arm, West Register, bought back assets at a knock-down rate.

Mr Brown said that while evidence to back up Mr Tomlinson's claims isn't apparent, he and RBS take the allegations seriously and pointed to the fact they've appointed law firm Clifford Chance to review the report.

In a wide-ranging interview the New Zealander backed his claims at the annual results that the bank, after reporting a loss of £1.5bn for 2013, will be back in the black in 2014.

He said a more concerted focus on winning new business, a pick up in the economy in the Republic and Northern Ireland and the formation of an internal "bad bank" would help it achieve that aim.

The latter, known as RBS Capital Resolution (RCR), has taken over all impaired real estate (where the loan outstrips the current value of the asset) which it will liquidate in the next three years.

Mr Brown said the liquidation will be carried out through straight asset sales, loan portfolio sales (where loans are bundled together before being sold) and asset portfolio sales. And he reiterated that it wouldn't be in the bank's interests to flood the market with property.

Meanwhile, the bank has already reduced its exposure in 2013 by selling 1,200 properties relating to loans on its books, a move it said has reduced 'overall exposure' by £1.3bn.

Mr Brown admitted the bank's reputation had taken a hit after the IT glitch in 2012.

"Let's be honest, people had a problem banking with us for three weeks," he said. "Our reputation took a hit, but it has rebounded strongly. It's not back to where it was, but we're heading in the right direction."

Mr Brown, who has been at the helm of Ulster Bank since April 2011, said it hasn't always been plain sailing but he has enjoyed his time as chief executive.

"Not every day is a sunny one, although we've seen more of those more recently," he added.

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