Posted on Monday 9 September 2013 by Ulster Business

Ulster Bank 

“I would like to apologise to customers and staff to whom we caused unnecessary concern last week following initial reports of further job losses and branch closures.”

That was the opening statement by Ellvena Graham, Head of Ulster Bank NI, appearing in front of Stormont’s Enterprise Committee last month following reports the bank was to slash 1,800 jobs and close up to 60 branches.

Thankfully those numbers – stemming from a confusing investor briefing – were incorrect, with nearer 950 redundancies to occur across theislandofIrelandin the next three years on top of the 950 announced in early 2012. The cuts will be achieved through “natural attrition” with only a few hundred jobs – and less than ten branches – likely to go here.

It probably wasn’t the reintroduction to theNorthern Irelandbusiness community Ms Graham would have liked. A 30-year veteran of the bank, the last 20 spent in Dublin, she was appointed to the newly created role of Head of Northern Ireland in March.

“We’ve a very different position up here being number one and having 30% of the business market to what we have in the Republic, where we’re very much the challenger brand.  We realised as an executive team we needed to refocus back onNorthern Ireland,” Ms Graham told Ulster Business.

She is already well aware the reputation Ulster Bank has in business, government and media circles is not good following the bailout of its parent company and an IT failure last summer which left customers unable to access funds for several weeks. 

“Of course there is an image problem and I am acutely aware of that. Our image was tarnished last year with the (IT) systems incident, there’s no point ignoring that. So we have a lot of ground to make up.

“One of the things I do want is to have a bank here inNorthern Irelandthat the people are proud to work in, that customers are proud to do business with. I don’t think either of those things are true just yet and I realise it is not going to happen over night. It is a big job for us but it is something we can absolutely turn around.”

Ulster Bank remains a major employer inNorthern Ireland, with over 2,000 employees and Ms Graham is quick to praise the staff in the bank’s branches for maintaining “healthy” relationships with customers through the current turmoil. But the future of Ulster Bank is still uncertain as the Government looks at the best way to return its taxpayer-owned parent company, Royal Bank ofScotland, to private ownership. There has been speculation Ulster Bank could be used as a vehicle to hive off bad loans, or sold to get RBS out of the Irish market.

The Ulster Bank boss says while she can’t predict what will happen she is “not overly concerned.” 

“My message to staff is simply to get on with the day job because the bank is on a trajectory to return to profit. We shouldn’t lose focus on that because the rest of it is completely outside our control,” she said. “Ulster Bank is an integral part of RBS.

What happens next remains to be seen. But Ulster Bank is important to theNorthern Irelandeconomy and I don’t think that’s lost of the Treasury at all.” 

Although Ulster Bank’s most recent results showed a reduction in impaired loans, the bank faces a struggle to return to profit after contributing a £1bn loss to RBS’s balance sheet in 2012. The bank has lent over £80m to 500 customers through theUKgovernment’s Funding for Lending scheme, but says demand is still muted.

However Ulster Bank has been singled out by former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson for being overly aggressive in calling in loans or changing repayment terms with business customers. Ms Graham acknowledges the concern.

“Yes we may have been a little bit faster than other people to face up to some of the problems we have, but I don’t think that’s the wrong thing to have done. I do believe it is better all round if we can engage with the customer and come up with a solution so we can all move on. I don’t see that as being more aggressive, I just think we are getting on top of it,” she said.

In fact the Ulster Bank executive says it is seeing a lot of businesses coming back to its “good book” from RBS’s Global Restructuring Group.

“That’s encouraging for us to see that because these are businesses that would have been earmarked as having problems which are now being managed in a normal relationship within the corporate bank again. We’re seeing the right signs.

I’d like to see that sustained before we start shouting from the rooftops but it is moving in the right direction.”

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