A new generation of banks is hoping to outgun Britain's traditional high-street names
It is a bright Saturday afternoon in London – so unexpectedly warm that one might even be moved to describe it as being a summer's day – and the shoppers are out in force along Kensington High Street.
Situated about halfway down and surrounded by chi-chi fashion emporia (though it sits, quite proudly it seems, next door to Argos), is a branch of Metro Bank, Britain's first new high-street bank in more than 100 years.
Metro, which has just celebrated its first anniversary, is no ordinary bank. Step inside and it resembles less a bank than it does a hotel reception lobby, its youthful, smiling staff not cowering behind bullet-proof glass, but rather gliding across its marble floor to meet and greet you and offer assistance. Against one wall is something called a Money Magic Machine, a child-friendly incentive that swallows up unwanted coins in exchange for notes. Alongside it float balloons that suggest, a little cloyingly perhaps, WE LOVE OUR CUSTOMERS! Opposite, at ergonomic desks, young couples discuss favourable mortgage rates with staff, while their children scrawl in colouring books.
All new enterprises need a USP, of course, and Metro's is clearly that it opens on a Saturday at all. Banks tend mostly not to. NatWest ran a big advertising campaign boasting about opening on Saturdays – but was later rapped on the knuckles, as not all of its branches did. Metro not only opens on Saturdays, but on Sundays, too. And during the week it stays open from eight o'clock in the morning until eight o'clock at night, thereby bucking that long upheld tradition of our banks being closed when we most want them open and full of interminable queues whenever we do visit.
This shiny newcomer also boasts another, distinctly odder, USP: dog bowls on the reception desk, piled high with doggy biscuits. If this is a gimmick that teeters close to novelty, it nevertheless encapsulates Metro's entire raison d'être effectively: a touchy-feely, accessible and accommodating outfit. Not only does it LOVE ITS CUSTOMERS!, but also its customers' pets. And any bank that likes dogs can't be all bad.
The approach seems to be working. One year on and Metro is an unlikely success story. It opened last summer with two central London branches and hopes of opening a further four within its first 12 months.
It's gone on to open eight – in places such as Croydon, Earls Court, Borehamwood – and now boasts vigorous plans to open a further 200 within the M25 alone in the next decade, whether RBS and Barclays want it to or not.
Ever since the banking crisis killed the collective confidence in our moneylenders three years ago, the government has been keen to encourage new banking enterprises to set up on British high streets. Arguably, there has never been a worse time to mount such a venture, but as Metro's chairman Anthony Thomson says: "Fortune favours the brave. To be honest, we didn't know quite what to expect at first, but there is obviously a real demand from people for a different kind of bank."
We remain, it seems, a nation that continues to loathe and mistrust our financial institutions. Each day, UK banks receive 11,000 complaints and customers are leaving theirs in droves. But to where? Once, they simply moved from one recognised name to another, from the frying pan into the fire, but now they are hankering after something new. Metro has been signing up on average 1,000 new customers a month and now have 25,000 in total. It does not, it readily admits, offer the best interest rates available, but its are nevertheless competitive ones and they have done away with the regular bugbears of misleading introductory offers and endless small print. It claims to be upfront and transparent, offering a perhaps necessarily exaggerated level of customer care and a bending-over-backwards convenience. Its lengthy opening hours are clearly a major selling point: "We have opened more accounts outside normal banking hours than we have inside them," the chairman says.
Metro was founded by Thomson, a marketing executive, and Vernon Hill, an American who started the Commerce Bank in the US in 1973 and subsequently built up over 500 branches. Thomson was always admiring of Commerce Bank's methodology and wanted to replicate that model over here, convinced he could.
Its plans, originally formulated in 2007, were not hindered by the economic crash, then, but rather helped.
"What we wanted most was to offer people a positive alternative to their current arrangements, largely because we felt they needed an alternative," he says. "So far so good."
And Metro isn't the only one. Handelsbanken is an understated Swedish operation which, earlier this year, opened its 105th British branch. If most of us haven't even heard of it, it's because it doesn't believe in aggressive promotion, but rather word-of-mouth recommendation, an optimistic ruse that, many predicted, would bring about its quick demise.
Not so. Handelsbanken is growing deliberately slowly, but emphatically surely. In November 2010, it topped a survey of bank customer satisfaction, registering 83 per cent compared to an industry average of just 69 per cent. The company has already proved itself capable of weathering serious financial storms, coming through the 2008 banking crisis unscathed. "Growth has never been our goal," says Richard Winder, the bank's head of communications, "and we don't have sales targets. Profitability is our benchmark and what underpins profitability is long-term customer satisfaction."
Handelsbanken's success, says Winder, is built upon its decentralised approach to business, which allows a certain level of autonomy for each individual branch. What this means for customers is that each has their own account manager, someone they will know by name and can call upon whenever required to do so. In the current climate, this is positively novel and winningly idiosyncratic.
But then Handelsbanken is a genuine maverick. Even in conversation, Winder speaks in a way one wouldn't normally associate with banks and their bankers, using words like "pragmatic", "sensible" and "safe".
He smiles. "Before the banking crisis, we weren't seen as the most exciting bank in the world, but from a business perspective, it absolutely works."
It's a claim that was recently backed up by Bloomberg, which now rates Handelsbanken as the world's second strongest bank, behind the Oversea-Chinese Bank of Singapore.
Our financial institutions have attempted facelifts in the past, of course. You may have noticed the radical overhaul of many Barclays branches – the company is in the process of rolling out its modern-look, open-plan banks across 1,600 locations. And a decade ago, building societies, initially presumed the family-friendlier alternative to buttoned-up banks, strove to reinvent the concept of customer care by opening up coffee shops within them and extending their own opening hours. It didn't take then, but the climate seems right for such change now.
Little wonder that Virgin Money also now looks set to establish itself as a proper bank, Richard Branson's company having long prided itself on at least giving the impression of spoiling its customers and making each feel individually counted.
The head of Virgin Money, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, revealed in May that the firm was planning simultaneous bids for 600 Lloyds Banking Group branches and the whole of Northern Rock. It's since been reported to have submitted a bid for Northern Rock – though not yet for the Lloyds locations. Branson's plans remain customarily bullish, forecasting rapid expansion and significant high-street presence. But will it succeed?
James Daley, editor of Which? Money magazine isn't yet convinced. Virgin Money, he says, hasn't had a particularly exemplary track record to date, one early TV advert for its credit card veering towards irresponsibility by featuring a man parading about town with credit card thrust forward, the tagline running: Just Say Yes.
"We are not a particularly financially literate nation," Daley says, "and so we often get bad advice and sold products that aren't right for us but are profitable for the banks themselves. As long as we haven't ended up losing a lot of money, we think we have done okay, but we could always do better with better advice."
Daley laments that we remain loyal to our banks. We don't like them, but fear that leaving them would be too much hassle; daunting even.
"Which is why we welcome fresh ideas to the market," he says, acknowledging not just Metro and Handelsbanken, but also other incoming operators, including Tesco.
"If Tesco can bring the supermarket model to high-street banking then that will be very positive," he predicts.
"Supermarkets have to fight very hard for customer loyalty and it can only be a good thing to see a bank fighting hard to keep us happy, rather than merely seeing what they can get away with. There are long-term benefits to treating customers well."
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