Customer Relations: Bankers are taught to think small: A NatWest course puts branch managers on the other side of the window

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The Independent Online
JIM CLARK is not typical of people running small businesses. Since he struck out on his own in 1984, he has kept accurate records. 'It seemed sensible to monitor performance. It's very simple,' he said.

But such an organised approach, by a company that only employs a handful of people and has limited goals, comes as a surprise to Michael Holloway, who manages a central London branch of National Westminster Bank. 'A few notes scribbled in a child's exercise book is all you usually get - if you're lucky,' he said.

Mr Holloway is not typical among bank managers, either. Thanks to a course that led to his meeting Mr Clark, he has been given an insight into the entrepreneur's approach to life, which is markedly different from his own.

This contrast between the staid, pin-striped banker and the colourful, go-getting businessman has been thrown into relief by the recession - and by the widespread criticism of the banks over their treatment of small business customers (which culminated in their being summoned before the Chancellor of the Exchequer to account for their actions).

As recently as last Monday, a survey by economists at Nottingham University, on behalf of the Forum of Private Businesses, compared the English high-street banks unfavourably with their Scottish counterparts over their relations with small business.

In this present climate, the NatWest course at Durham University Business School has great public relations value, but in fact it has been going more than two years.

Derek Wanless, the bank's chief executive, admits that there was a recognition that the looming recession would make such training more important - but he insists the programme was part of a long-running commitment to better understanding of an important sector of the economy.

Small business 'is technically quite a difficult market' from a banking point of view, Mr Wanless pointed out. 'The multinational company has all kinds of information - so, in a sense, it is easier to lend pounds 100m than to lend pounds 100,000.'

In short, he said, there was a need for a completely different set of training objectives. 'It's very much learning how to communicate. Another component is to think of more than just the financials.'

Complementing the in-house programmes run at the bank's staff college in Oxfordshire, the course in Durham is seen by the bank as particularly helpful in getting managers into their customers' shoes.

By the end of this year, more than 500, or 80 per cent of the managers dealing mainly with premium small businesses, will have been through the process, at a cost of about pounds 400,000 a year for the past two years.

Next year will see the remaining 20 per cent trained, and that will be followed by 'general maintenance'.

Durham has not been chosen randomly as the course venue. National Westminster has close links with the business school through staff who have been seconded there.

At the same time, the school is nationally known for its small business centre, established 21 years ago by Allan Gibb, and the region has spawned many small businesses in the wake of the closing of many of its traditional industries.

Although the course format has been fine-tuned since it started two-and-a-half years ago, Tim Atterton, director of the small business centre, said the emphasis was still very much on helping bankers with 'relationship management'.

Even before the recession, there was a feeling the bank was not doing enough to understand its customers, he said. 'We were picked because we knew nothing about banking.'

A key part of the centre's job is to provide an honest appraisal of the small business situation. 'Bankers inevitably spend much of their time with problems, so it is inevitable that they feel that it's all bad,' Mr Atterton said.

'We try to reinforce the idea that helping small businesses is what banking is about.'

Contrary to popular belief, those attending the courses tended to warm to this idea, he said. Much of the five-day course is spent listening to entrepreneurs talk about life on the other side of the bank window. The bankers also make field visits, such as the one made to Mr Clark's business by Mr Holloway and a NatWest colleague, Anne Barker, from Milton Keynes.

'It certainly helps us to see customers from their point of view, rather than just as bankers,' said Ms Barker, adding that she had found the course particularly helpful, since she is just returning to the lending side after several years in administration.

Mr Atterton categorised the programme as 'trying to learn to dance with people without stepping on their toes', but he stressed it was not all about being softer on entrepreneurs.

Indeed, if the participants have paid attention to one particular part of the course, they are likely to end up being tougher with many customers. This particular session is entitled 'dynamic accounting' and, judging by the reaction of many of those at Durham, there are still a lot of bankers who rely on the notorious gut instinct rather than scientific method.

For those familiar with the concepts, the class does not require any leap of the imagination. But if somebody is used to making banking assessments on the basis of the person, or the value of the property being offered as security, learning how to rate the business is clearly a big jump.

And it is a valuable jump. For instance, Mr Clark, who started his working life as a mine electrician, is just about everything a bank manager would desire: intelligent, personable, organised, open, and ready to discuss projects, fully up to date with the progress of his business, keen to train himself and his staff, and apparently free of expensive habits. At the same time, his company, Clark Business Forms, which acts as a broker between the makers of stationery and their customers, seems to be thriving.

Yet last year, by his own admission, he overstretched by trying to expand a little too fast and do too many things at once. It would have been easy for a bank manager to get carried away by Mr Clark's enthusiasm and give him the support that in the end could have brought the business down.

What happened instead was that the cash-flow problem was recognised. The bank manager (coincidentally from NatWest) called in Mr Clark, told him that the problem was 'nothing that couldn't be put right', and reorganised his company's financing arrangements.

Having had the overdraft up to pounds 50,000, the company, which has a pounds 470,000 turnover, is now operating within a pounds 35,000 overdraft facility.

And Mr Clark is contemplating new opportunities and how one day he will hand over the business to his sons.

(Photographs omitted)