I hope there is somebody from the Ulster Bank out there reading this, because right now I am saddened. As a person who is passionate about Clones, about small towns, about rural communities, I`m sad to see that the Ulster Bank, a Bank founded on the principles of supporting local communities, has now decided to turn its back on those communities.
A Bank which liked to say “YES”
Since I set up business in Clones in 1983 I have always been a customer of the Ulster Bank. At 24 years of age, without any money, I went to Tom Tully, the local Branch Manager in Clones, and asked him if the Ulster Bank would lend me money to buy the practise of Henry Murphy & Son. In those days you were fortunate to be able to deal with a local Manager. The Manager could put a case to Head Office, who would listen and support that Manager`s decision. I got the loan! We have remained with Ulster Bank since then and the Bank has supported us through good times and bad times. It is because of that integrity that I am saddened to see the direction which the Bank now appears to be taking.
“Mack the Knife” approach?
To get an idea of where the thinking of the Ulster Bank is on this, one needs to read the Ciaran Hancock Article in the Business Section of the Irish Times Friday 12th December titled “We want to get back to being the number one for customer service”, featuring an interview with Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Ross McEwan, who sets out his vision for the Ulster Bank (RBS owns the Ulster Bank). McEwan states that last month the Bank announced the closure of 14 branches which will affect 27 staff (what he omitted to say was that they are also closing 10 branches in Northern Ireland, bringing total closures to 24!). He also states that “if you look at the things we need to do over the next 12-24
months you`ll find this bank in quite a different position”. One of those “needs” appears to be the closure of branches like Clones, which has served this Border town for almost 150 years. He talks about “some things that are dragging it down at the moment and pulling return down”. Cuts at the cost of service?
A new way of thinking?
It seems that all Banks want to drive the customer out the door and have us all doing Online Banking. This is a brave call for a Bank which suffered an IT meltdown for some weeks in July 2012 causing severe losses and disruption to its customers. What would its customers have done then if they had no Branch to attend? It is also a big ask in rural areas where many areas do not have access to Broadband. It`s very much a city attitude to banking. I`m reminded of Marie Antoinette suggesting that the peasants eat cake when they couldn`t access bread!
McEwan states that he wants RBS / Ulster Bank to get back to being the number one for customer service. Will that be achieved by closing local branches? Why not become the number one for customer service by breaking the mould; not copying the other Banks, but doing something different? Can a Bank provide the best Online service but also be there for its customers? Would this not be a unique selling point and increase its customer base, when the herd mentality of all other Banks is to head down the same narrow Online lane?
A Bank for North and South
In the Irish Times Article Ross McEwan states the plan of RBS is to separate the Northern Ireland branches from the Republic of Ireland branches, bringing the Northern Ireland “piece” within the NatWest/RBS Group in Britain, “while the Republic will paddle its own canoe”. With 2 separate companies operating on each side of the Border but with one common purpose, are there not opportunities for synergies enabling it to work in tandem with one of the All-Island Cross-Border bodies, such as InterTradeIreland? Could the Clones Branch, being on the Border and already supporting businesses North and South, not form a pivotal role in this development?
Maybe what I am suggesting is naïve, but can we at least think outside the box, rather than believing that the only way to grow is to cut back services?!!
Short-term gains / long-term losses
In the last century many towns, including Clones, lost their railway network. The GNR Railway through Clones, which was once a major junction, was closed in 1958. This was devastating for the town; yet at the time closures were promoted, as more modern ways of travel such as car and bus had been attained. It was then too costly to keep the railways open. Now, despite the necessity to improve our carbon-footprint it is simply too expensive to reopen the railways. Imagine the scenario in 50 years time where Banks realize that they should not have closed their Branches but simply find it too expensive to backtrack!
Can we not learn from previous mistakes? Rural towns have lost their ESB Offices, Post Offices, Courthouses and other services. Governments have never had a proper strategy on the preservation of rural communities.
Is it not time for the Ulster Bank to have some backbone and become the backbone of community banking? If that were to happen, it would be genuinely “back to being the number one for customer service”.