Belfast Telegraph

Why Ulster Bank says its support for Business Awards is a reflection of its backing for Northern Ireland plc

Kenton Hilman of Ulster Bank tells Margaret Canning about its recent success and about his formative years playing rugby for Ireland Schools

By Margaret Canning

It's the most prestigious awards event for the business world in Northern Ireland - and title sponsor Ulster Bank has said it's delighted to support the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards for the second year in a row.

Kenton Hilman, its head of corporate and institutional banking, says its commitment to business in Northern Ireland is reflected in its support of the awards, which will be presented in Belfast's Crowne Plaza Hotel on Thursday.

This year has seen a record number of entries, and Kenton has high praise for the calibre of those entries, and for the trail blazed by former winners, including Newry's MJM Group - which was last year's winner of the Overall Business of the Year.

Kenton (43) grew up in Saintfield, Co Down, one of two children to parents who were originally from Co Tyrone.

He went to Belfast Royal Academical Institution (Inst), and praises the school for its academic standing and the opportunities for extra-curricular activities it offered. "A lot of what I have been able to achieve may not have been possible without going to that school."

He and his wife Emma, a financial adviser, now live in south Belfast with their son, who's following in his father's footsteps and attending Inst, and daughter, a keen hockey player.

Ulster Schools and Irish Schools rugby was a big part of Kenton's schooldays, and he even gained a few caps for Ulster until injury curtailed his playing.

He had a formative experience at 18 when the Irish Schools team travelled to New Zealand to play its national school team.

One of the New Zealand players, Jonah Lomu, died suddenly three years ago. A year later, and Ireland was to suffer its own loss.

Looking back, Kenton says: "It's incredible how close you can become, going away for eight weeks to New Zealand at 18.

"We had all still been in contact since 1992. Then Jonah Lomu, who was the number eight, died.

"Every year we used to have a reunion and it must have been the 23rd year of the reunion that we all got together. Anthony Foley, who was our number eight, really pushed for that so we all got together - but the next time we were together, it was for Anthony's funeral."

In June this year, Kenton will join his former team mates on a cycle around Anthony's home town in his memory.

Kenton studied agricultural economics at Queen's, and followed his degree with a Masters in finance. He joined business advisory firm KPMG, where he took up the opportunity to spend two years on secondment in Australia. Emma joined him after the pair got engaged.

Kenton gained invaluable experience in Sydney where he worked in the high-powered field of transactional services.

One of the big deals he worked on was the acquisition of Rosemount Wines by Southcorp Wines, which was one of the biggest corporate transactions of 2001.

"But I missed home, and at that time the economy in both the UK and Ireland was getting a lot better, so the job opportunities were great. I think Emma and I realised we are both homebirds."

He started with Ulster Bank in 2002 and has worked in a number of roles, including head of the Belfast business centre and leading the invoice finance team. Kenton is now leading a team providing banking to some of the province's biggest businesses.

In Ulster Bank's most recent results, there had been a 15% increase in lending to large firms .

And Kenton's own team has been involved in major deals in food and drink, manufacturing and technology. In hospitality, it's supported an £18m investment by Loughview Leisure Group in an extension of Belfast's Ten Square Hotel, as well as the construction of the new Titanic Hotel.

"Hospitality really has become a very big area, and tourism has been very good to Northern Ireland over the last period of time," he said.

Its support of the food and drinks sector is also reflected in its backing of the Balmoral Show, the annual agricultural extravaganza which takes place at Balmoral Park outside Lisburn next month.

And Kenton is proud of this record in agri-food, including Ulster Bank's support of Finnebrogue outside Downpatrick, mentioning its nitrite-free bacon and its growth in turnover from around £15m five years ago to £50m.

Ulster Bank also backs Hilton Food Group, a major red meat supplier to supermarkets like Tesco.

In the health sector, Ulster Bank has funded developments such as the Marylands Healthcare development in Carryduff.

And in property, it's worked with investors who have acquired large properties in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It has also funded e-learning company Learning Pool, which is based in Londonderry. Last year it acquired Mind Click, a company based in Great Britain.

Social housing is another growing area, with the bank last year providing £10m in finance to Habinteg Housing for its plans to build hundreds of new homes.

"Social housing is a growing sector and banks are starting to understand it, and it's a safe sector to back because it is supported by government," Kenton explains.

During 2017, there was also an increase in drawdowns by small businesses of 29%.

And the bank's Entrepreneur Accelerator, based in Lombard Street in Belfast, has been a boon to the start-up sector, supporting 264 entrepreneurs. It's also helped create 658 jobs and raise £15m for businesses based in the hub.

But Ulster Bank's standing took a battering during the economic downturn. Businesses who faced financial difficulty were placed in a division known as the global restructuring group (GRG).

But GRG was later accused of profiting from the businesses it was supposed to be helping.

Ross McEwan, chief executive of Ulster Bank parent company Royal Bank of Scotland, has apologised for GRG.

And Kenton says that clients have "absolutely" moved on from the negativity surrounding GRG.

"The proof of that is that we have been able to do a number of transactions with customers who have been through that GRG process. It was a difficult process for the bank to go through, there's no doubt, but the structures and the way that bank and staff interact with customers has changed dramatically since the crisis."

He says a US Department of Justice fine is the last big "hurdle" that parent RBS has got to clear.

The fine is likely to be a multi-billion dollar sum and is being levied following RBS' mis-selling of retail mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) before the crisis.

"There is no doubt that it (RBS) is a much slicker organisation than it was before the crisis," he said.

And he admitted that the bank's investment in technology demonstrated its commitment. Innovations include a platform called Esme, which can give decisions on lending of up to £150,000 within 24 hours.

Ulster Bank is now the biggest corporate bank and he says that with Northern Ireland served by a large number of banks, growing by acquisition of new corporate clients is crucial.

Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland is now more closely embedded in its sister UK bank, NatWest - in contrast to previous years, when it had a closer link with Ulster Bank in the Republic.

He says a closer link with NatWest made sense from a regulatory point of view, while it has also helped clients in Northern Ireland to be able to avail of NatWest expertise in certain sectors.

Kenton believes the prospect of Brexit has brought uncertainty - but some benefits to UK companies. "For agri-food, for the majority it's been quite positive, partly because of currency. Some of the supermarkets have been known to make sure that they can source enough product out of the UK, though that comes at the expense of some in the south."

But others have held off investment because of the uncertainty over what's around the corner.

Overall, he thinks the landscape for lending to businesses has improved, and applauds developments such as the Big Growth Fund's decision to open an office in Belfast. "We would welcome that. It's about having a mixture of those who are going to the banks, private equity funds or the markets."

Belfast Telegraph

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