In the space of just a few weeks, Northern Ireland’s economy and wider society was effectively put on hiatus as we, along with the rest of the world, tried to tackle the spread of coronavirus. But Mark Crimmins, head of Ulster Bank NI, says it’s helping a raft of firms deal with the crisis head on, as well as supporting others through the most difficult of times
Less than a year ago, Mark Crimmins took up the reins at Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland.
Now, as a bank stalwart with more than two decades under his belt, he’s helping customers and companies of all shapes and sizes weather the biggest societal and economic crisis in peace time.
And Ulster Bank is one of those already ahead of the curve, offering significant financial support packages to firms, including the UK Government-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans (CBILS) and Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS).
“For us, firstly, it was about the health and safety of our staff and customers – being good citizens around the Government’s guidelines. That has informed a lot of the decisions we have made,” he told Ulster Business.
In the initial weeks that followed the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, and subsequent lockdown, Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland approved more than 95% of business customer requests for support.
And since then, it has been assisting its customers in both keeping afloat, and helping in the fight back against the pandemic.
“We had to make sure that all our critical banking systems continued to function as they should – payments, online, mobile, fraud systems – things which help support the economy.
“Then it was all about supporting businesses with their requirements – in the long term and short term, looking at what measures were needed.”
That includes financial assistance such as the availability of fee free loans, up to a six month capital repayment holiday on variable rate lending and the granting of an overdraft or extension of existing overdraft limits.
Businesses behind the innovative Hero Shield, crucial for front line NHS workers and others when it emerged there was a shortage of the protective visors, are among those securing financial support from Ulster Bank.
Among the companies are Ulster Bank customers Shnuggle and Minprint, which have now received significant financial support packages, including CBILS.
“The volume of what we are dealing with occurs among the small to medium-sized businesses,” Mark says. “For the largest, we have been involved with forbearance and other funding for them. It’s been primarily to help firms get through lockdown”.
Among Ulster Bank customers helping to produce the crucial Hero Shields is Belfast-based Crossen Engineering, which is working alongside Denroy Plastics to make the products available to the business community.
Managing director Paul Crossen says the health service will continue to have priority but that the increase in production capacity will enable them to make the product available commercially.
In terms of additional assistance for firms, Ulster Bank is also helping Northern Ireland-based small and medium-sized businesses move seamlessly to non-cash payments with an innovative new digital platform, for which it is waiving terminal rental fees for the remainder of 2020.
Tyl is a merchant acquiring and payments solution that has been developed to enable customers to take card payments anytime and anywhere.
Meanwhile, Mark, like his colleagues, have been through tough times before – both at a bank level and across the UK and international economy as a whole.
He says the true picture of how the Northern Ireland economy, and beyond, is being impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, will only start emerging as we reopen and government financial assistance begins to be withdrawn.
“There will be some winners and losers. You will have a lot of corporate indebtedness. In Northern Ireland, businesses have been deleveraging. But the worry is that some could take on extra debt, which is dead debt, which will eat into cash flows and consume balance sheets.”
But Ulster Bank adapted to the ever-evolving situation rapidly, and assisted those turning their attention to new markets and retooling in a bid to help amid the crisis
And while the attention is drawn towards customers, such as Shnuggle – which has received assistance and is the baby product firm which designed the Hero Shield – others are being financed to source key goods, such as importing personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Dealing with a crisis is something that we are used to,” Mark says. “We have some good muscle memory from the last financial crisis and have expertise in dealing with this.
“Before this we had been predicting a mild and short recession, which we would have been able to navigate. But this is a lot deeper and will be more long-lived than anything we would have expected. But we are going in as a bank. The difference between this and the credit crunch in 2008 is we are going into it in a much stronger position.
“We are long on capital and have meaningful headroom in the funding ratios and are capitalised to support customers through this. That’s the biggest difference.
“For me, the next thing is looking at what the future would look like, and how we need to position ourselves to support customers and our staff.”
Mark is also turning his attention to what general day-to-day business will look like when Northern Ireland, and the rest of the world, begins to return to workplaces, and society starts to open its doors.
“We are all watching what changes there will be in the worldwide trends,” he said. “You could see a lot of reversal, worries around security of supplies of food, medicine, healthcare, and there may be government rethinking around that.
“There may be consequences on large cities, and Northern Ireland could make a case for itself. As firms repurpose and reposition, there will be opportunities for Northern Ireland.”
And for Ulster Bank, Mark says it is now actively exploring its opening hours, but alongside the ability to work safely and employ social distancing measures.
“The next stage is encouraging a government-led thinking on the future, and the opportunities that could potentially be unearthed as mega trends change around the world.
“There will be long-lived and permanent change to working practices.”
When an unimaginable, unprecedented health crisis struck, beginning on the other side of the world, before hitting our shores – the strength and ingenuity of a few stood out.
And as the pandemic began to hit our front line services, with genuine fears of a severe shortage of PPE and other key essentials for our NHS, companies like Shnuggle began thinking of how they could play their part.
Sinead and Adam Murphy set up their baby product business in 2011. But almost a decade later, amid the crisis, Adam saw the need for face visors and designed what’s now known as the Hero Shield.
“With the Hero Shield project, my husband has been the project leader on it, and I have turned my attention towards Shnuggle,” Sinead says.
“We wanted to be able to do something, and something helpful. We saw people crying out for PPE, and we could see that there were huge shortages. Adam then started to talk to our head of design within Shnuggle, and came up with the design for a face shield, and started putting the project together – then it kind of snowballed.”
That initial idea soon led to a series of companies retooling to begin producing the life-saving gear for our front line workers, including Bloc Blinds, Huhtamaki and Denroy.
“They were able to get other firms, local companies, involved in the manufacturing, and getting distribution of the shields.
“A lot of fundraising went on, and there were some amazing donations, mostly from Northern Ireland. The website then started to process orders, and there were the logistics, delivery to households, care homes and hospitals. We project managed it and co-ordinated the whole thing.”
And that initial idea between Adam and the firm’s chief designer, just a few weeks ago, means the firms together have already smashed an initial target of 100,000 face shields, according to Sinead.
“We were sitting on the couch in the evening and getting the emails in from the NHS and care home staff who were using them – and thanking us. It was quite humbling.
“We are removed from the front line, but we are at least contributing in some way. We don’t have our own manufacturers but our skills are in design, co-ordinating projects – learning from our time with Shnnugle.”
From its own perspective, Sinead says Shnuggle has endured the global pandemic, but also seen a strong uplift in online sales from the UK and Ireland.
“We have been very fortunate, ourselves. It has been very strong. Babies are still being born and people want to make sure they have what they need.”