Ulster says yes to viable future but admits it’s been ‘a painful process getting there’

Chief executive Jim Brown is confident the bank will be back in the black in 2014 and is open to discussions about plans for a ‘third force’

Jim Brown: “If you look at the banking market [in the Republic], it’s very clear that there’s the two pillar banks and there’s us. What we’re looking to do is to become a more compelling choice in the market.” Photograph: David Sleator

Jim Brown: “If you look at the banking market [in the Republic], it’s very clear that there’s the two pillar banks and there’s us. What we’re looking to do is to become a more compelling choice in the market.” Photograph: David Sleator

Fri, Mar 14, 2014, 01:00

Jim Brown is a glass half full type of chap, which is just as well when you’re the chief executive of Ulster Bank.

He admits to having “done my own due diligence [on the bank] for three or four months” before accepting Royal Bank of Scotland’s invitation to take on the role three years ago.

Brown is no Tom Cruise but it was almost a case of Mission Impossible for him on taking over. Ulster Bank was deep in the red, with a high level of mortgage arrears and billions of euros of dud property loans on its books. Its business model wasn’t fit for purpose in the post-crash era and it only avoided going bust thanks to a £15 billion cash injection from RBS.

“I came to the conclusion that the Ulster Bank brand, the position we had in the market, the opportunities that may arise once we got through the crisis, and the connectivity with RBS were all factors that I thought would result in us having a viable and sustainable business here going forward,” he explains from a meeting room on the top floor of its head office building in Dublin’s George’s Quay.

Ulster Bank is certainly at an interesting tipping point in his 178-year history. Two weeks ago, on the day of its annual results, parent company RBS announced that it was looking at strategic options for Ulster Bank in the Republic. It reaffirmed its commitment to the market here and said it wanted to become a “compelling challenger bank” to AIB and Bank of Ireland, the big two in the Irish market.

Its business in Northern Ireland will take a different direction by forging closer links to RBS’s franchises in Britain, integrating more in terms of products, pricing and marketing.

This was the result of a five-month strategic review by RBS, at the behest of the UK Government, which majority owns the UK bank. Staff in the Republic had expected some details on branch closures and job cuts. Instead, lots of questions remain unanswered.

What’s the plan for Ulster Bank in the Republic?

“We’ve got a very clear strategy right now,” Brown says. “First of all, the bank [he means RBS] is committed to the Republic and to Northern Ireland. That was confirmed in November of last year. We’re doing an operating model review to work out how we can better fulfil our strategic ambitions here.

“In the Republic specifically, what we’ve said is that we’re looking at other options . . . a range of options. If you look at the banking market, it’s very clear that there’s the two pillar banks and there’s us. What we’re looking to do is to become a more compelling choice in the market.

“We think there may be further consolidation [he means mergers or acquisitions] in the market. We’re looking to see if Ulster Bank can play a part in that. Clearly though, that would have to result in us getting a better outcome than our current organic [growth] strategy.”

RBS has engaged Morgan Stanley to advise on potential consolidation plays alongside Brown and John Davison, who heads RBS’s strategic investment group in the UK.

“We expect that it will take another couple of months for us to know the outcome,” Brown says. “We’ve already got a strategy here that is working but the issue is, does an opportunity like this add something more than what we’re doing today.”

Earlier this month, the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan revealed that he was looking at the possibility of establishing a third banking force to compete with AIB and Bank of Ireland as the economic recovery gathers momentum.

Brown said Ulster Bank and RBS are interested in discussing this with the Government.

“If there’s an opportunity we would certainly look at it,” he says. “The Government has been very clear. They are looking for a third banking force in the market. I would assume whether it’s organic or through some other option that Ulster Bank would be one of those three.”


Consolidation plays
Has there been engagement with the Government on this?

“The Government is aware that we are looking at other options. Also, they are aware of the changes we have made in dealing with the legacy issues.”

This is a reference to the fact that RBS has shifted £9 billion in problem loans out of Ulster Bank and into a group internal bad bank.

In reality, given the size now of the retail banking market in Ireland, Permanent TSB and KBC Bank Ireland look like the only consolidation plays available.

“There are a number of smaller institutions, without getting into the specifics, and there may be opportunities with those in terms of fulfilling our strategic ambitions, but I couldn’t mention specifically who they might be,” he says.