Ulster Bank to shut up to 40 branches by end of 2014

Lender outlines plan to return to profitability by 2016

Ulster Bank is set to reduce the number of its branches to between 175-185 by the end of 2014. Photograph:Frank Miller /THE IRISH TIMES

Ulster Bank is set to reduce the number of its branches to between 175-185 by the end of 2014. Photograph:Frank Miller /THE IRISH TIMES

 

Ulster Bank is planning to shut as many as 40 branches as part of a new plan to become a “smaller, lower cost and profitable bank”.

Under the plan the bank aims to close dozens of mainly rural branches.

Ulster Bank said it will keep between 175-185 branches open, down from 214 at present and 238 in 2012.

The remaining branches will be focused on urban centres and with a reduced staffing level. The bank said it will invest in its internet banking service to increase online usage.

Ulster Bank, which announced 950 job losses in January 2012, said a further 350 positions will be lost as a result of the decision to close branches but that these would be achieved through natural attrition.

The finance union IBOA expressed anger at the announcement, which it said had been made without prior consultation with employees.

Jim Brown, chief executive of the Ulster Bank Group said while the bank would be shutting branches it would also be increasing the methods by which customers could engage with it.

“We need to continue to invest in digital to give our customers smarter banking when and where they need it,” Mr Brown said. “Online is a key distribution channel,” he added, pointing to a 11 per cent increase in the number of active online banking customers.

Ulster Bank said it is aiming for the core bank to reach break-even by 2014, with its legacy and non-core portfolios and stranded costs separated from the future bank.

The bank, which is a subsidiary of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), is targeting areturn to profitability in 2016, and a return on equity of 5-10 per cent in the medium-term.

By 2016, the bank expects to return to profitability and be on a “moderate growth path”, with the majority of transactions performed via direct channels and next generation ‘lite’ branches and kiosks. It will also have a product range that is “largely identical” with RBS’ product set in the UK and which is “optimised” for direct distribution.

Mr Brown also said that Ulster Bank will “leverage” the RBS Group to build a “market leading proposition”.

He said the bank has made good progress over the past two years, with an improved loan to deposit ratio of 127 per cent, down from 152 per cent; widened margins; and the implementation of £65 million in cost reductions.

When it comes to core performance, the bank has moved on from a loan to deposit ratio of 191 per cent at its worst, to 127 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Its target is about 100 per cent. The bank said its cost to income ratio has also improved, down from 84 per cent at its worst, to 63 per cent in the first quarter which is closer to its target of about 50 per cent.

The bank said it is targeting growth in sectors that will leverage its competitive advantage and improve margins and fees.

Ulster Bank is also aiming for its core bank to reach break-even by 2014, with its legacy and non-core portfolios and stranded costs separated from the future bank.