You'll be proud of Ulster Bank, vows new chief
The Ulster Bank's new head for Northern Ireland has said she wants to restore the bank to its "rightful place" in the province.
Ellvena Graham said the bank, like others, had lent excessively in the boom of the 2000s but now said she wanted to show customers that they could be "proud" of the institution.
She said her appointment as Northern Ireland head this year – on top of her continuing role as chief operating officer in Ireland – was not a direct response to an IT glitch which affected customers last year and ultimately cost Ulster Bank £82m to rectify.
Ms Graham, who has been working with Ulster Bank and its parent company RBS since leaving school, including the role of head of operations for RBS in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said: "(Ulster Bank chief executive) Jim Brown recognised that the bank is very different in Northern Ireland than the south, where we are number three and the challenger brand – but in in the north we have the biggest number of branches and a decent big market share.
"It's really two different banks and he recognised that we needed more focus on Northern Ireland.
"I don't believe it was (a direct consequence of the IT glitch). He was definitely talking about it beforehand but the glitch may have expedited it."
She said part of her role was to emphasise that the bank's coffers were open. "It's trying to get our story out there that we are open for business, lending money and participating in the Funding For Lending Scheme and we have lent over £70m on that already.
"It's trying to get the message out to all our various stakeholders, and even our customers, that we are serious about staying here and building our bank and bringing it back to its rightful place."
Had the bank lost its rightful place in the 2000s?
"I think it did a little and it lost focus, certainly in the media's eyes, I think," she said. "We were seen as an all-Ireland bank which didn't have enough focus on Northern Ireland. The whole market was moving at a pace and we were trying to move pace with them and retain market share, probably all lending more than we should have been."
A planned schedule of branch closures would leave the bank with 79 branches in June compared to 90. Closing branches was a response to customer needs, Ms Graham claimed.
She said: "Over 40% of our transactions are now done on telephone, online or by mobile banking... We are definitely seeing changing behaviours and we are adapting to that. But it's not nice to have to close branches, it's not a pleasant thing to do."
She said the bank kept its branch network "continually under review". "We are continually looking at our branch network and the whole industry is contracting its branch numbers."
Many companies which had been in the bank's restructuring unit in a "variety of sectors" had returned to profitability.
However, Botanic Inns Ltd and sister company Kurkova, which ran 14 pubs and hotels in Belfast, were put into administration at the end of April by Ulster Bank.
She refused to comment directly on the pub businesses, but said: "We are 100% committed to working with companies that will work with us but sometimes you reach the end of the end of the road and there isn't a way forward."
The cost incurred by Ulster Bank after the
IT glitch last year