Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Profile: One of our own... Ellvena Graham

Ellvena Graham joined the Ulster Bank straight from school and has spent the last three decades scaling the corporate ladder. Now in the top job, how will she turn around a bank that stands accused of being predatory in the pursuit of profit, asks Alex Kane

Ellvena Graham
Ellvena Graham

It hasn't, to put it mildly, been a good five years or so for the Ulster Bank: although, on the brighter side, it has just posted a profit of £17m for the first quarter of 2014 – its first quarterly profit since 2009.

Since the summer of 2012, it has been dogged by a series of glitches and technical problems, which have left customers without access to their accounts, charged them twice for some payments, prevented cards working at ATMs and shops and generated an embarrassingly high level of negative media at a time when the perception of banks by the general public is already very jaundiced.

A BBC Spotlight investigation broadcast on Tuesday suggested that the bank's "main remit was to collect as much money as possible from clients to help the bank".

A former employee of the Royal Bank of Scotland – Ulster Bank's parent company – claimed that the Global Reconstruction Group (an arm of the RSB, which operates within the main bank and its various subsidiaries) directed him to "destroy viable businesses. That was my job, I was told to do so".

The programme ended with this voiceover: "Ulster Bank was bailed out by the taxpayer because it was part of a group that was too big to fail. Now it stands accused of failing some of its customers. So the question remains: was Ulster Bank's approach prudent, or predatory, in the pursuit of profit?"

In March 2011, the bank announced the appointment of Jim Brown to the position of chief executive, replacing Cormac McCarthy, who had held the post since 2004. Brown came from New Zealand and had spent most of his career working across the Asia Pacific region.

But during the "glitch period" in 2012, there were both public and private concerns that the bank didn't seem to have a local face to represent it, to respond to the media and to offer reassurance to the thousands of customers who had been inconvenienced.

So, in September 2011, the bank appointed Belfast-born Ellvena Graham as chief operating officer for the Ulster Bank Group as a whole, followed, in March 2013, by the added responsibility of the newly-created post of head of Ulster Bank Northern Ireland.

In that role, she reports directly to Jim Brown and represents the bank with all key stakeholders, including government, industry bodies and consumer groups.

As Brown noted: "This position is an important new role for Ulster Bank in serving the needs of our customers in Northern Ireland.

"Recognising the significance of Northern Ireland to the bank's identity, Ellvena will lead engagement across Northern Ireland targeting all key stakeholders." Or, translating that into plain language, a local person to deal with what had clearly become a local problem.

Ellvena Graham was born in 1963, in Co Down. She has two older brothers and her father was a local businessman. She was brought up in the country and attended Methodist College from 1975 until 1982, when she joined the Ulster Bank.

She has worked her way up through the ranks, including a period as the Royal Bank of Scotland's head of operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

She claims that being a woman has not held her back: "I have never perceived it to be a barrier for me. However, there is no doubt that encouraging more women into business leadership roles is both a work in progress and an opportunity."

Indeed, Ulster Bank is currently engaged in a range of initiatives to encourage women into leadership roles in business, including our own Business Women Can initiative and as a sponsor of Women in Business NI.

"I have always found it incredibly important to have a mentor outside of the bank – someone I trust and I can use as a sounding-board. It is important to me to act as a mentor to others, as well," she says.

It is clear that Graham is regarded by key people in the Ulster Bank as "one of our own", and that's an important quality to have at a time when the bank has so many unresolved problems.

It remains Northern Ireland's largest bank and the third largest in Ireland, but as recently as July last year, it was named as one of the United Kingdom's worst performers in a customer satisfaction survey, with a rating of just 45%. It's that sort of perception that Graham has to turn around.

And she will have to do it against the background of a recent Treasury report that said that while the Ulster Bank "fits well with the RBS's strategic footprint and core capabilities ... a sustainable operating model needs to be found for it so that it is a viable business in a normalising Irish economy." In other words, yet another internal review looking at its size and shape in the future.

It's that sort of language that worries Ulster Bank employees here, so again, having "one of their own" at the centre of that review may bring some comfort and reassurance.

Simon Hamilton, Stormont's Finance Minister, reacted to the news of the review by saying that: "We do have the opportunity as a result of the review to shape the Ulster Bank into the bank that we need it to be."

It's hard to know what he means by that, but it seems pretty certain that Graham will play a central role in briefing him about the consequences and impact of any proposed reshaping.

The Ulster Bank is both a big employer and a much bigger player in terms of the personal banking and business needs of hundreds of thousands of people across Northern Ireland.

What happens to the bank matters to Northern Ireland and matters to the Executive. Graham will have to soothe a lot of nerves and reassure an awful lot of people if more downsizing and restrictions are on the way.

Graham seems very aware of the challenge: "Having worked in Ulster Bank for over 30 years, I am acutely aware of Ulster Bank's central role in society and economic life in Northern Ireland."

And maybe that's the key to her appointment (and let's not forget that there would have been world-class contenders for both posts she now occupies): she knows Northern Ireland and she understands Northern Ireland.

She will be more aware than most other people at her level in the banking industry that what's happening to the bank – as well as what's happening in the political/peace process – is a cause for great concern for a range of customers that embraces everyone from the multi-portfolio property owner to the widowed pensioner.

The Ulster Bank is seen as part of the very fabric of Northern Ireland in a way that the other banks aren't. The very fact that the post of head of Ulster Bank Northern Ireland was created especially for her gives you an indication of the regard in which she and her talents are held.

Away from the world of banking and finance, her great passions are rugby (she supports Ballynahinch, Ulster and Ireland) and ballroom dancing (when time permits): "I haven't been for a few years, but I would have been a regular visitor to some of the most famous ballrooms in Vienna."

That ability to move gracefully, while constantly thinking about your next step, may prove very useful as the Ulster Bank seeks to sort out its problems and get back on its feet again.

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