Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Bank pledge focus on customers after harsh lessons

By Clare Weir

The new head of retail markets at Ulster Bank, Richard Donnan, has reiterated his commitment to customers and has said that "lessons are being learned" from the difficulties facing financial institutions across the UK and Ireland.

Mr Donnan has been "acting up" in his role since September 2010 and officially took up the position at the end of January.

A self-confessed "lifer" with the bank, he first found employment there in 1989 on the cash desk and worked his way up, including a brief secondment to Nat West.

He has been involved in perhaps every area of the bank, from property, to commercial and consumer banking.

Mr Donnan said that claims banks are not lending, a regular accusation from small businesses and potential home buyers, did not ring true.

"Ulster Bank lent more than any other bank in Northern Ireland last year and we had 40% of the market share of first-time buyers," said Mr Donnan.

"We are working on a lot of new mortgage and business products - we have a £300m fund set aside for small to medium enterprises and last year lent £600m for new businesses and for increased facilities. We're also part of a small business task force."

Mr Donnan said that Ulster Bank, part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, will bounce back from disappointing results last year.

It made a pre-tax loss of £761m in 2010 despite boosting profits on a day-to-day basis. Its operating profit climbed to £400m last year, up from £281m in 2009, but impairment charges - money set aside to cover against bad debts - jumped to £1,165m from £649m, largely due to its exposure to the Republic's economy.

"Our profits before impairment were good and we have put a lot of actions into place which are starting to bear fruit," said Mr Donnan.

"We have more to do, we realise that. Everyone is bashing the banks, but for me it is important to rebuild trust between us and customers and increase the transparency of the banking system - we have to be prepared to back words with actions."

That started last year when the bank produced a set of customer commitments.

Saturday opening in main towns and cities has been a major success for Ulster Bank since the initiative began in September 2010, with 60,000 customers visiting an Ulster Bank branch on a Saturday.

The bank recorded 115,000 new current accounts opening - a third of the whole market share here - and 345,000 balance text alerts were sent to customers.

"The sum of the customer commitment scheme is greater than its parts," said Mr Donnan. "We hope to have a full survey of all the commitments being taken by consultants Deloitte in due course, but some have already proved tangibly successful."

He added: "45 branches opened on a Saturday, 19 of those in Northern Ireland."

Mr Donnan remains positive about the outlook despite the tough economic times.

"It will be a challenging year, but industries like the food and pharma sectors are doing well," he said. "There is low growth potential and we may see a slight recovery."