Lending a Hand
Micheal Wilkins

Lending a hand – Michael Wilkins

Allied Irish Bank (GB)’s marketing campaign says their business is business banking. Area Manager Michael Wilkins explains how Brighton-based businesses can benefit. Words: Ian Trevett.

ABSOLUTE: What is the current state of business in Brighton at the moment?

Michael Wilkins: There has definitely been more activity this year; the evidence can be seen by the growth in our lending book month on month. We have seen tentative confidence and, while we still think there is scope for more lending, in a risk conscious environment business deals are taking a lot longer to get done across the board and that is a frustration for both businesses and banks.

You have been managing a branch in some very difficult economic times. How did this affect the bank?

Demand for lending dropped away along with the appetite from banks to lend. It was a very challenging time for all banks and, as an Irish bank we felt the pressure which was on the Irish economy too. Like all banks we have been through a period of restructuring and we have come out the other side. We are proud that we managed to continue to help customers throughout a difficult period.

Has the worst now passed?

We have successfully come through that period of restructuring and are looking forward to supporting owner-managed businesses in the UK. As part of the restructuring each branch focused on making sure that its own balance sheet was fully funded and we have been very successful in collecting deposits – We are now back to a traditional position where we can lend our own deposits rather than going in to the wholesale market for the funding. We raised a surplus of funds to lend hence the new fund that we are launching to lend to owner-managed businesses

In terms of banking, it seems that you operate with the traditional approach of relationship building…

We pride ourselves on our strong customer focus and part of this is our traditional relationship-based banking model. Our business customers tell us that they want to deal with a friendly bank and to develop relationships with relationship managers who understand their individual needs. We believe we have more relationship managers per customer than other banks.

I use the phrase ‘private banking for businesses’ and what that really means is local branch teams, local decision making and local relationships. Customers’ banking is managed here at the branch, although we do have internet business banking.

What would you see as your target market?

Most of our customers are fairly mature businesses which are established and growing, meaning that as their banking requirements become more complex, they need a closer relationship with their bank manager and for them to have a good understanding of their needs. It’s not prescriptive in terms of turnover or borrowing requirements. If you were borrowing more than £250,000 you would probably be more on our market space than under £250,000.

It’s not all about borrowing – sometimes it’s just, if a business has a lot of moving parts to it, it has a lot of interaction with the bank so it needs people like Sue and her team to be on the end of the phone for example to track international payments. It is not just the borrowing requirements or the turnover, to some extent, the complexity of the business makes our relationship-based service invaluable.

Do you think the bank’s role in the city helps to get things moving?

I’d like to think so. I can think of some recent deals which have enabled companies to grow and create jobs in the local economy. These include funding the acquisition of a local manufacturing business that created many jobs. We have provided a loan to a business in the travel industry to help them re-locate to new premises. We have also funded domestic and overseas expansion for a local company in the education sector. It’s a cross-section really of businesses that we have been helping this year. I really do like to see business thrive in Brighton and to be a part of it. I am keen to work with businesses across all sectors that need our support.

How does Allied Irish Bank (GB) differ from other banks?

We are a genuine alternative to the High Street banks because we are geared to service businesses of a certain size and type. We understand the needs of owner-managed businesses and can offer them the things that really make a difference: quick decision making and attention from people that really understand their business.

Our business customers consistently demonstrate very high levels of customer satisfaction and we receive positive feedback that states we are straightforward, simple and easy to do business with us. Key factors are that we make quick lending decisions and we believe we have more relationship managers per customer than any other bank. What’s more, the quality of our front-line people and the continuity of our staff are core strengths whereas some other banks have a lot more turnover of staff.

I have been in this job a long time, which means I have built up many contacts and to some extent that is where business comes from: word of mouth, reputation and recommendation. Before joining Allied Irish Bank (GB) about ten years ago, Sue Windham and I were at a very large high street bank, and we are still looking after some of the same clients, which is a great endorsement. I also get more involved in things that are going on, for example the local chamber of commerce, so we have a wider interest rather than just customer networking. People like traditional banking and don’t want to deal with call centres.

Is it still a perception that banks aren’t out there to help people?

I think there may be a general perception but we specialise in business banking and have good relationships with our business customers who understand the value of this. I have always encouraged my colleagues to go out there and fly the flag and to actually tell it how it was. We are keen to work with, and lend to, local businesses who have a desire to grow.

But now you are lending to owner managed businesses…

About a month ago we launched a new lending product called The Owner Managed Business Fund. It is aimed at owner managed businesses, which is our market place and it is attractive from an interest margin perspective and an arrangement fee and full banking fee basis as well. So there is a very attractive package available to businesses who are looking to grow.

We are responding to an increasing need across the business landscape in the UK, specifically directing capital to growth businesses and have specific amounts for each region to lend: in our area we have a total of £100 million available.

It is quite encouraging to go out there and say that we want to lend you money.

Well, yes it is. We are inviting potential clients to breakfast or drink receptions and there will be accountants and finance people that will know a bit about Allied Irish Bank (GB) and what our target market is. There is a genuine desire to expand but to the right businesses. I’m confident that we will get where we need to be. It’s nice to be able to go out with that message.

Do you see a bright future for the business sector in Brighton?

In my view Brighton has been quite resilient during the recession and it remains a desirable place for people to be both to live and to work. I think because of that you will always have an element of business success. There are pockets of very successful businesses and others that are struggling – as you will find anywhere, but I think there are positive signs here.

Because of the desirability of being in Brighton, people that are here for the universities tend to stay and therefore start up their own businesses here. Maybe that is why the new media and technology industry is so strong. We are keen to lend to established and growing businesses across all sectors and to do our bit to support the business sector in Brighton.