Barclays boss hails bank's continuing investment to grow Northern Ireland market share
The chairman of Barclays Bank has said its Northern Ireland operations will target small farmers and other SMEs as it aims to increase market share.
Sir Ian Cheshire, also chairman of Debenhams plc - which he acknowledged had faced a "tough Christmas - said Barclays aimed to build up its SME share of the market from its current "single digit" level.
He was in Belfast to open Barclays' Castle Place branch following a £2m revamp.
Sir Ian said the bank was a "challenger" in the market here, compared to its position in Britain.
"We are starting from a low base but we are investing for growth and in the last year alone we have had growth here in our retail banking of 10% and corporate growth of 20%," he said.
Its growth targets included a focus on small farmers, he said. It already has poultry giant Moy Park and a large number of poultry farmers on its books.
But Sir Ian said the introduction of more technology into branches, including Castle Place, did not translate into job losses.
Instead, he said innovations including self-service tills "freed staff to come out from behind their desks". "The total presence adds up to digital and human banking," he added.
Barclays also has branches in Coleraine, Ballymena, Ballyhackamore, Newtownards, Bangor, Lisburn, Portadown and Newry, employing 54 people in total.
And Sir Ian said the bank is preparing for Brexit with plans to extend its base in Dublin.
"We have built up our business in Dublin to handle EU business and it's in everyone's interests to reach as open a trade deal as possible," he said.
But he said he would not echo the complaint of some businesses over a supposed lack of access to 10 Downing Street.
"There is a great picture of our chief executive Jes Staley walking into Downing Street - that to me is access. But we are in a complex negotatiating position where it's not always possible to disclose your wishlist," he said.
He wants Theresa May to remain in the job despite continued pressure from both sides of the Brexit debate within the Conservative Party.
"I'm a big supporter of the need for the Prime Minister to hold the Government together and make sure we have stability for Brexit. If you take the view that is being accosted from both sides, then she must be doing something right," he said.
And he dismissed the impact of leaked Government studies showing a contraction in the economy in all Brexit scenarios.
"I know from my own work around Whitehall that civil servants are consistently doing scenarios and studies," he said. "From what I can see those are first-draft desktop exercises rather than the finished article."
He said the bank monitored the management of credit among customers as rising levels of consumer debt were a potential threat to the UK economy.
Missed credit card payments - and a lack of consistency in the amount paid off each month - were an early indicator a customer was under pressure, he said, as mortgage repayments tended to be missed only in the most extreme circumstances.
And as chairman of Debenhams plc, Sir Ian said the department store giant - which has five outlets in Northern Ireland - had been under pressure.
"We had a tough Christmas but actually when you look at it we managed to hold onto market share in clothing, grow in beauty but we had a tough time in gifting. So we're not one of the casualties," he added.