Margareta Pagano: As Branson rocks the high street – bankers beware!


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The Independent Online

When I caught up with Sir Richard Branson on Thursday – the day Virgin Money scooped up Northern Rock – he had just stepped off a plane on the East Coast, having flown from Los Angeles where he had been partying at a Rock the Casbah charity gig.

In the 48 hours before that, the Virgin tycoon had been in San Francisco, London and Rotterdam; nothing new then. Even Branson sounded a little croaky, but thrilled that he had beaten rivals to Northern Rock after four years of on-off talks.

He tells me Rock can be profitable again, hopefully by the year after next, because of the Virgin brand effect. But he's not sure whether to switch names to Virgin Bank – because of bankers' appalling image – so he's going to tweet to ask his followers what they think. "People want to feel safe with their banks and I'm not sure they do any more," he says.

As well as safe, the public wants to feel that it's not being ripped off. So can Branson bring his magic to banking? And can he really shake up the high-street cartel? The signs are good. Overnight, Virgin becomes one of the UK's biggest players, with 5 per cent of the personal banking market. Rock brings another one million customers, giving Virgin four million accounts in all, 75 branches and 2,100 staff, a £14bn mortgage book, and retail deposits worth £16bn.

It's still tiny compared with the big four – Barclays, Lloyds, RBS and HSBC – which have some 80 per cent of the market, but, even so, the deal could still be a game-changer if Branson does all he promises. Expect more radical products like the Virgin One Account, lower margins, loyalty schemes, small-business lending at the micro-level and more deals – talks are ongoing with Bank of America's credit-card arm, and there'll be others.

This is promising stuff. From Branson's point of view, it's by far the cleverest move of his extraordinary career. If you take his past record – from airlines to gyms, Virgin Media and, more recently, space travel, then he has shaken up every market he has entered. Changing people's banking habits is a huge task, though – switching banks is something most people do just once in a lifetime. But Virgin Money has already snapped up a million customers and the public, certainly the young, like his swagger and the brand. He's got brains as well as guts with his top team of Sir David Clementi and the impressive Jayne-Ann Gadhia, who are determined to take on the giants.

Criticism that the taxpayer is left with a big loss on its Rock holding is understandable but misplaced. The Chancellor was right to sell because the sale brings money into the coffers now, and there'll be more to come, taking the full-price to £1bn. And as most banks are trading at 0.6 times book value, the 0.9 times which Virgin is paying for Rock looks pretty good. Talk of a float seems so early as to be academic in this market, while Branson's record with public companies is not great.

At Rock's Newcastle HQ on Thursday, staff cheered the news; and so should we. Here is a serious player capable of shaking up the high-street banks. It's a long time since the late Lord King of BA quipped that if the Bearded One had worn a suit not a jumper, he would have taken him more seriously. Bankers beware: he still doesn't wear suits, nor has he attended a board meeting in 30 years. Nice style.

What's in a word? Cameron succumbs to chancellor's charms

Don't you just adore Angela Merkel? The past few months have been galling for Germany's Chancellor as, one by one, Europe's so-called top politicians, the bankers and the media have flamed her over the eurozone crisis. They have tried to blame her – and her German partners – for not pushing the ECB to print more money. Quite rightly, she's resisted. Merkel may be frumpy, and often grumpy, but you have to admire the way she keeps her word, never kow-towing to gimmicks or grandstanding like so many of her fellow politicians. And, after all the tit-for-tats over EU treaty changes this week, it looks as though even David Cameron may have succumbed to her charms. In Berlin they agreed to work more closely with Europe to make growth and competitiveness a priority. This is a good start: working from the inside is always smarter.

There is no need for our young to be denied the opportunity to work

The tragedy of last week's figures showing more than a million of youngsters now out of work is that there are plenty of jobs around. As the CBI and the EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, constantly remind us, there are hundreds of companies with thousands of vacancies.

But the trade bodies claim that there are still not enough British workers sufficiently trained or qualified for the jobs. Many of those available are across the manufacturing and engineering sectors, which are still enjoying month-on-month growth. They range from the need for youngsters with basic NVQ- level skills to PhD-level abilities. There are also jobs in sales and marketing requiring some degree of skilled knowledge.

So why are there 2.6 million unemployed when there are jobs? It's partly because there is a time lag in demand from the manufacturing and engineering sectors, which has been steadily increasing over the past few years. It's partly because employers claim school-leavers and graduates are not up to scratch. And, finally, it's because not enough teenagers are being directed into the economy's growth areas.

What's so annoying is that there's so much that can be done to solve the problem. And it doesn't take rocket science or loads of money. We need to step up the ties between business and schools; have more campaigns such as the coalition's Inside Manufacturing campaign; more incentives for maths and physics teachers, and to cut degree courses from three years to two.

The elephant in the room is the need to make it easier for companies to employ people. This will allow them to be more flexible and restore their confidence to employ more. As Sir Richard Branson, to quote him again, says elsewhere in the newspaper, the coalition should switch incentives from benefits to employers so that they can afford to let more people go part time, flexitime or whatever.

But that requires confidence and boldness from our politicians. Are they up to the challenge?