Barclays maps out growth with 'citizen salesmen'

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The Independent Online

In Portugal, a typical visit to the GP could go something like this: "Turn your head and cough. Good. By the way, have you heard about the great introductory rate for the new Barclaycard?"

It may seem an odd juxtaposition but a routine check-up at the family doctor, or a trip to get that cavity filled by the dentist, is now increasingly accompanied by a pitch for Barclays bank.

The practice is due to the use of so-called "independent salesforces" - professionals such as nurses, accountants and lawyers who are contracted by companies to flog their products in exchange for a commission. It is an accepted and regulated, if idiosyncratic, practice in the Iberian country. And for Barclays, these citizen salesmen are a critical part of its aggressive expansion plans, both here and globally.

When Frits Seegers decamped from Citigroup to join Barclays in July, with the lofty title of chief executive of global retail and commercial banking, his mandate was clear: reinvigorate the bank's pedestrian retail business. The drivers of the group's growth in recent years have been Barclays Capital, the investment banking unit, and the wealth management business Barclays Global Investors. The retail side has been less impressive.

In its most recent results, Barclays did reach its long-stated goal of generating half of group profits abroad, but that was due more to the underperformance of Barclaycard in the UK than its brilliance overseas.

Even so, the group's global ambitions are one reason why it is seen as takeover fodder. Last week, Spain's BBVA and Bank of America were both tipped as possible buyers of the company. Merrill Lynch analyst Edward Najarian said in a note that the American giant, which has stated its intention to look abroad for its next phase of expansion, could pay as much as £60bn to get its hands on Barclays and the British bank's sprawling international network. Barclays dismissed the speculation.

In order to generate the desired level of profit from its foreign operations, and sustain them, Mr Seegers is leading a drive to squeeze extra value out of the company's geographic footprint by cross-selling more products and ramping up organic growth.

Portugal is at the forefront of this push. Later this month Barclays will open its 100th Portu- guese branch, in Porto, the country's grey, windswept second city. That is double the number of offices it had in Portugal two years ago. Country manager Rui Semedo aims to double that figure again within the next 12 months. Barclays has earmarked €25m (£17m) to fund this growth. "The message from Frits has been, 'You have my support'," said Mr Semedo. "We want to be a major player here."

The Portuguese strategy grants autonomy to local managers to open branches and hire staff. The reliance on the independent salesforces means that new branches reach break-even within one year, claimed Mr Semedo, rather than the industry average of two and a half years. The tactics may be used as a template for expansion elsewhere, namely Italy, where the bank plans to open 50 branches within the next 12 months.

The success of such strategies will be a test case for Mr Seegers; Barclays heralded his appointment earlier this year as the panacea for its retail business.

But some in the City, who have heard that song before, are sceptical. Mark Thomas, banking analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said: "They have had four changes of the retail UK management in the past seven years, and each time its been the best thing since sliced bread, the start of a new vision, the dawn of new growth of the branch network."