Belfast Telegraph

Quality staff help bank reach out to small firms

By Heather McGarrigle

Santander is aiming to be the 'go-to' bank for business in Northern Ireland, according to the group's new UK chief executive.

Ana Patricia Botin, previously chief executive at Spanish lender Benesto, took over from Antonio Horta-Osorio in November 2010.

She told the Belfast Telegraph that the Santander team in Northern Ireland had "consistently been the number one performer in Santander UK over the past five years" in terms of sales and customer service.

Ms Botin said the quality of its staff in Northern Ireland meant the group were well placed to pursue their strategy to grow the business, SME and corporate sides of its operation in the province.

Santander entered the UK in 2004 with the acquisition of Abbey National. Between 2008 and 2009, with the economic crisis in full swing, the group took over Alliance and Leicester and Bradford and Bingley.

Named as one of Forbes' Magazine's 100 Most Powerful Women in 2009, the Harvard graduate has enjoyed a long and successful career, working in Benesto and American financial services firm JP Morgan, before joining Santander in 1988.

But Ana believes it is her personal experience in the world of business which is proving most useful in Santander UK's attempts to reach out to small firms.

"I left banking for three years and helped run a small business - it was an incredible insight. Often you find that bankers have always been bankers.

"Entrepreneurs have been fighting all their life to build a business; they are tough people who have been through hard times.

"Unless you actually do it, you don't know what it's like - how important the bank is to a business. We are investing a lot of time with our relationship managers so they learn how to understand business and the customer."

The bank does have a significant presence in Northern Ireland, with almost 500,000 customers and around 40 branches. Belfast's Mays Meadow site houses the group's corporate business centre, where five relationship directors and relationship managers look after corporate customers with annual turnovers of over £1m.

The group, which runs school-leaver and graduate recruitment programmes, partnered with Queen's University in 2008 as part of its Santander Universities project, offering scholarships and grants to students, as well as funding and sponsorship for awards and exchange programmes.

Margaret Chambers, head of regional banking in Belfast, said she had seen the programmes in action.

"We've had at least 10 graduates coming on board since October and the school leavers programme offers A Level graduates opportunities in branches but also in Mays Meadow.

"We're bringing graduates in to personal banking advisor roles and seeing them progress to become branch managers and wealth management specialists. They're supported through their exams by Santander too.

"There's a solid career structure within the bank. At a time when there aren't many jobs, it's great to see students in Northern Ireland being given the opportunity to develop careers on home soil."