The Big Interview: Mike Bamber, Chief Executive of Retail Markets, Ulster Bank
Without a doubt business is being impacted as the cost of our ‘raw material’ — money — increases, and the world financial markets go through a period of significant volatility. However, as the saying goes, “when the going gets tough ...”, so we have responded with vigour to the changing conditions.
We continue to grow and attract new customers and in the past 18 months over 150,000 new personal current accounts were opened across the island. As the number one bank in Northern Ireland we take very seriously our obligations to champion and serve our customers well.
We aim to be the number one bank on the island and we have every intention of achieving this through our staff engagement programme, our expanded distribution network and our continuous market-leading product initiatives. There are challenging times ahead for all banks, but I am very confident that we have the people, infrastructure and capabilities to consolidate our leading position in the Northern Ireland marketplace. This, couples with our unique positioning within the Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS), one of the world’s largest banking groups, provides us with a significant competitive edge.
ANY EXCITING PROJECTS IN THE PIPELINE?
Yes, but I’m not gifting information to our competitors! What I can say is that our £56m branch improvement programme is almost complete and we’re continuing to expand our branch and business centre network north and south of the border. We aim to be best-placed to serve our customers — for example, opening and refurbishing branches, including our newly refurbished Belfast City office, while other banks are closing them. We’re also about to launch a private banking service and we’re continuing to innovate in the mortgage market to support customers in challenging conditions. Our new first-time buyer proposition in partnership with leading developers is one example of how we’re doing that and is a ‘first’ in the UK.
Over the past few months we’ve added some outstanding sponsorships to our portfolio in the areas of arts, business and sport. We strongly believe that these sectors are central to the economic well-being of our society. We recently became title sponsor of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, complementing our sponsorship of the Dublin Theatre Festival and have also just signed a three-year flagship sponsorship deal with the GAA All-Island football championship, which we’re very excited about.
WHAT ARE THE LONG TERM PROSPECTS FOR YOUR |ORGANISATION?
To be the number one bank throughout the island of Ireland. Already we have a strong competitive edge through the integration of our business operations north and south, which
has provided us with an excellent platform for continued growth. We believe that we have the vision, ambition, strategy and the capability to become the number one banking group on the island.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACING YOUR |ORGANISATION?
The cost of money is undoubtedly the biggest challenge presently because it is adding to borrowing costs. With our market share in Northern Ireland we’re very much tied to the challenging global economic conditions the region faces and, because of this, it’s imperative that we continue to be even better and more innovative in how we carry out our business. However, having said this, I do believe that the mid to long-term prospects for the local economy remain strong, and that gives me cause for significant optimism.
COULD THE GOVERNMENT HELP YOU TO DO BUSINESS BETTER?
Banks, through the provision of a wide range of financial services, play an integral part in everybody's day-to-day lives. Therefore consumer confidence in the banking industry is extremely important. The Government recently consulted widely on proposals for change to the legal and regulatory frameworks within which UK banks operate and we wait with interest to see what changes the Government intends to make.
Generally, I’m not a fan of central intervention and believe it’s up to us in business — whatever activity that is — to ‘make it happen’. Locally, I believe the Executive made a good start though I worry whenever we miss an opportunity to present a united front on the world stage. That said I look forward to the Executive delivering on its Programme for Government and Investment Strategy over the coming years, and the positive impact this will have on the local economy.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WORK FOR YOU?
Our five values say it all: Customer First — One Team — Valuing People — Burning Drive – Courage to Act. If you work in Ulster Bank you’ll see them in operation daily.
YOUR VIEWS ON THE |ECONOMY PLEASE.
Northern Ireland is not immune to the pressures of global economic cycles and I see the combined pressures of energy, food and borrowing costs hitting the economy. The key to
understanding the current economic turbulence is to view the economy in the longer term. The UK, RoI and NI economies are all experiencing a significant slowdown in private sector activity. Nevertheless, despite these challenging times there are still local firms that are expanding, entering new markets and investing for the future. Northern Ireland is still a bit unique — devolution has meant that we're in a more positive position than other regions, and we need to make the most of that! It is important that the Executive and local businesses position themselves to take advantage of the economic upturn whenever it comes.
I’m concerned that we don’t overdo the doom and gloom at the minute. Take house prices for example: there needed to be a downward adjustment to the value of houses but that means good news for affordability and first-time buyers and it also pushes all of us to work harder to meet customer needs.
Putting the economy first is the right
thing to do, but we then need to play to our strengths and make more of our opportunities.
THE BUSINESS CLIMATE — GOOD OR BAD?
It’s undoubtedly difficult at the moment and likely to remain so in my opinion well into 2009. Longer-term I’m an optimist by nature and feel very positive about Northern Ireland’s future. Call it a ‘downturn’ or a ‘recession’ but they are unfortunately a fact of life and come along every so often. The last one on such a scale was around the late eighties/early nineties but, because of Northern Ireland’s circumstances the downturn wasn’t as severe because it hadn’t experienced the boom beforehand. This time we have had a growth period so we need to learn new leadership skills to meet what is a new challenge for many. In the current climate the very best organisations continue to do well by making the most of opportunities and adapting to the conditions.
WHAT AMBITIONS DO YOU HAVE AT A PERSONAL LEVEL?
I want to see Ulster Bank Group continue to grow and become the number one bank on the island for the benefit of its customers and staff. I’ve also just joined the Board of Community Foundation Northern Ireland and want to learn how I can play my small part in helping bring about a better Northern Ireland. Beyond that I’ll take each day and opportunity one at a time.
WHAT DO YOU GET UP TO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
When I’m not working I enjoy spending quality time with my wife, children and friends, enjoying Northern Ireland’s wonderful North Antrim Coast. I’m also a keen Liverpool fan, but that can carry its own stresses!