An army of market traders, taxi drivers and window cleaners was out for revenge yesterday after one of Britain's largest high-street banks let slip that it did not want their business.
Halifax, part of a group which made profits of £3bn last year, enraged a host of small businesses by listing them on training course material under the heading "we don't want it".
New businesses, taxi drivers, window cleaners, market traders, shops, supermarkets, and anyone "dealing with coinage" were listed as persona non grata on a flip chart left out in a Manchester branch.
The chart, used to train staff about which customers were suitable for business bank products, was noticed by customers at a Halifax branch in Trafford, in Manchester. It left HBOS – which was formed by last year's merger of Halifax and Bank of Scotland – accused of snobbery and facing an exodus of self- employed customers.
Anxious to avoid a public relations disaster on the scale of Gerald Ratner's disparaging comments about his own jewellery, the bank launched a damage-limitation exercise yesterday, insisting it welcomed all-comers but did not yet have the facilities to deal with small cash-based businesses.
The chief executive, James Crosby, issued a public apology, saying he was "really embarrassed" by the episode, which was down to the "honest mistake" of an employee. The wording on the material was wrong and the bank was anxious to attract new ventures and small businesses, he said.
"It should have said 'accounts which at the moment are not appropriate'," an HBOS spokesman said.
Before the merger last September, the Halifax had not offered bank accounts for small businesses and most of its branches were still unable to offer them, despite a 12-month programme to introduce new facilities and staff.
But the explanation came too late to deflect the anger, with the Federation of Small Businesses demanding a full retraction from an operation that "purports to be a bank".
"This perpetuates the myth that small firms are here today, gone tomorrow and are difficult to deal with. There has always been a view that the self-employed carry more risk but that is where everyone starts from – there is a snobbish attitude in the financial fraternity," said a Federation spokesman.
Dennis Conyon, chairman of the National Taxi Association, said many of his members were considering switching from the Halifax.
He said:"They should consider whether the Halifax is good enough for them and their hard-earned cash.I, like all taxi drivers, deal in cash. Are they suggesting that I go to another bank first to get a cheque before coming back to the Halifax to make my deposit?"
Roy Holland, a publicity officer for the National Market Traders Federation, accused HBOS of discriminating against stallholders in the same way as insurance companies who refused to insure their vehicles.
"They are turning away an awful lot of business. Dame Shirley Porter's father started as a market trader and turned it into Tesco and if you go back far enough M&S began as a market stall," he said.
The Master Federation of Window and General Cleaners will meet on Monday to discuss how to respond. "It's disgusting that the Halifax thinks it can pick its customers. I hope it's a downfall for them," said Beryl Murray, its general secretary.Reuse content