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Gerry Mallon: Difficult decision to leave Ulster Bank

Gerry Mallon

Gerry Mallon says he has “zero regrets” as he’s set to leave the Ulster Bank in the Republic after less than two years in charge.

In an interview with Ulster Business, the former Danske Bank boss said his time at the helm of the RBS-owned bank, for just under two years, has been “interesting” but he’s been surprised by how negative the perception of the industry, and bankers in general, still is, in Ireland.

The Belfast man – who is also chair of the Irish Football Association (IFA) – is leaving to head up Tesco’s challenger bank, later this year. But he said he initially turned down the new job.

“I wasn’t interested in a move, and wasn’t looking for a move. At that level, you get approached... I initially said that I wasn’t interested, but Tesco persisted in asking me to take a look at it.

“The more I did, the more excited I became about it.”

He said he didn’t expect to leave his top Ulster Bank role after less than two years in charge.

“Yes, clearly you don’t go into a role like that with the expectation that you will leave in a couple of years. I did see myself as having a longer term at RBS, but when opportunities present themselves to you can’t choose the timing.”

Gerry says there are still “more legacy issues in the south still to be resolved, but they are finite and they will be resolved”. “None of those are reasons to leave,” he said.

The Republic’s banking sector is going through a fresh challenging period, amid an industry controversy over tracker mortgages.

At the end of 2015 it emerged customers, across a range of lenders in the Republic, were denied a tracker interest rate on their mortgage which they were entitled to.

“It’s something that is being dealt with,” Gerry said. “I think the industry will recover but it still feels now like the industry did in 2010, in the UK.

“I have no doubt that the industry hasn’t covered itself in glory. But I do think that the treatment of the industry has been quite harsh.

“The part I see, is a lot of people in the industry working hard to do the right thing.

“It will be resolved this year... the damage which has been done in terms of public trust will be decades in the mending.”

“It (the market in the Republic) has taken a turn for the worse gain in the last half of 2017, when the tracker mortgage issue really became a major political concern. That wasn’t something that I would have seen coming.

“I have zero regrets about the move to RBS, which I think has been wonderful development for me and I am moving on to something which is a fantastic new opportunity.

“It’s a really difficult decision to leave RBS and to leave Ulster Bank.

“I have been presented with such a fantastic opportunity... coming at banking from a very different perspective. It’s impossible to say no to it.

“Clearly there is less legacy there, but I think what is exciting is the reach and the power of Tesco.

“It’s such a wonderfully all encompassing every-man brand, that everyone in the UK can relate to.

“There is strong trust there. No matter how much we as bankers talk about customer service and simplicity, no one does it as well as a retailer.

“Coming at financial services with the customer-friendly approach of a retailer is very exciting.

“Tesco, through the Clubcard, has a unique approach to customer loyalty, something that banking has never been able to crack.

“The notion of both banking being able to enhance and improve the Tesco loyalty, and being able to benefit through Clubcard points is a real winner for the customer, and the retailer.”

He said Tesco is now the largest of the so-called challenger banks, with more than seven million customers.

“It has quietly got on with building a strong position,” Gerry said.

Gerry took over as chief executive of Danske Bank in 2008, just weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

He’s headed up Ulster Bank’s operations in the Republic for less than two years, and has been at the helm of the Irish Football Association (IFA) since 2015.

The 48-year-old’s career has brought him from the Northern Ireland subsidiary of a Danish bank headquartered in Copenhagen to the Dublin base of a bank owned by a Scottish parent company, and now to Edinburgh, where Tesco Bank has its own base.

Following his somewhat surprise departure, Les Matheson, chief executive of personal and business banking at Ulster Bank parent RBS, said the Belfast man had “made a significant contribution to the continued turnaround of Ulster Bank since joining in 2016”.

On his time with the IFA, including his third year as chairman, Gerry says it’s key that the organisation gets the “right levels of professional corporate governance and financial expertise”.

“Between us (the non-executive directors) we complement the rest of the board members, who are coming from the football family.

“They understand more about the grassroots, about the league and the game.”

And it’s very much a business, according to Gerry.

“It’s a £15m turnover business that has some big government assets, and has responsibility, and is a national institution,” he said.

“It is a great source of pride. If you look around, that is how we all do it. It’s not a remunerated position.

“We do it because we want to contribute. I was never going to get capped on the pitch.”

Gerry says the part-time role hasn’t made a great deal of difference to his already busy work schedule.

“From my perspective, I’ve got the less onerous jobs, and possibly less glamorous (roles) – chairing the meetings.

“If we have competent board members, strong staff and a good chief, then the role as chairman should be relatively light.”

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