Profile: Banking's boy wonder: Derek Wanless - NatWest's chief has a personal touch but a pragmatic vision, says William Kay

BIDDING among the banks for the hearts and minds of the great British public reached its highest level for some years last week after Martin Taylor, Barclays' new and outspoken chief executive, told a television interviewer that 'people do want to spend a lot of time with the old-fashioned bank manager of myth, but they don't want to pay for it'.

That, in many people's eyes, left a vacuum on the moral high ground. So Sir Brian Pearse, the soon-departing chief executive of Midland Bank, promptly filled it.

'The decision makers are too remote,' he declared. 'During 1993, my bank put over 200 senior managers back in the field.'

That drew a hurt response from Taylor. But by then his counterpart at National Westminster, Derek Wanless, had entered the fray with a carefully plotted path down the middle of the debate.

He said: 'Technology is freeing our staff from mundane tasks and allowing us to provide more imaginative services and to concentrate upon providing more relationship banking and more face- to-face contact where our customers welcome it.' In other words, computerised credit-scoring is taking most of the sweat out of grass- roots banking, but suitably trained counsellors can be wheeled out for more tricky cases.

Although Wanless can point to a credible record of trying to improve the personal customer's lot, his view is not too far removed from what the normally eloquent Taylor was trying to say.

Wanless, who has been NatWest's chief executive for two years and is still only 46, has had to learn such silken skills since the time he blithely expressed doubt to an interviewer about whether he would still be in the job by the time he was 60.

But although Wanless's Geordie twang is fading under the pressure of umpteen gatherings with the great and the good, he still manages to retain more than a dash of the common touch inherited from his boyhood on the football terraces at Newcastle United.

His late father was a storeman for Blue Circle. The young Wanless enjoyed the undivided parental attention that falls to an only child, and doubtless experienced some of the weight of expectation.

He exceeded any parent's most fevered dreams, winning a scholarship to Newcastle Royal Grammar School and then a NatWest-sponsored scholarship to read maths at King's College, Cambridge. Not only that, he walked away with the title of senior wrangler - the top first- class maths degree in his year.

Many career possibilities beckoned, beginning with a doctorate and conceivably leading up the academic ladder to a rewarding and reasonably undemanding professorship. Instead, he loyally went back to NatWest and asked for a job.

'I wanted to get out into the commercial world,' he explains. 'I had become more and more interested in business through going back to work at the bank in Newcastle during my vacations.'

NatWest knew a good prospect when it saw one and before long Wanless was attached to a director of the bank. The nearest he got to being a straightforward branch manager was a spell as an account executive at the Bishopsgate branch in the City.

'I dealt with personal customers as well as small businesses,' Wanless recalls, a touch defensively, before admitting that, yes, the typical Bishopsgate customer was more financially clued up than your run-of-the-mill punter in the sticks. 'But they had other types of problems, partly because they did know a bit about finance.' If I am pricked, do I not bleed?

In 1982, in his mid-30s, Wanless was whisked back up to his homeland to be an area director. That gave him his first taste of the situation he was to encounter time and again from then on: outranking people who were considerably older and more experienced than himself.

'When I went there,' he said, 'I didn't have a branch manager who was younger than me. Some were 25 years older. My approach was always to be quite hard on the facts of any case but sympathetic about the people, providing they were doing their best. It was never a ruthless style, though it could have been. I'm not like that, unless people were sloppy or not trying to perform, in which case I have no problem about dealing with people who are freewheeling along.'

Having shown that he could deal with his own sort, Wanless was transferred south as far as West Yorkshire. A year later, he was back at NatWest's ornate Lutyens head office as director of personal banking. In career terms, he has never looked back.

During his three years in that job, in the midst of the carefree 1980s, he was ultimately responsible for introducing a series of endearing little ceramic pigs called Woody, Annabel, Maxwell, Lady Hilary and Sir Nathanial Westminster. They were given to child customers every time they deposited another pounds 25 in their account for at least two years.

While Maxwell turned out to be an unfortunate choice of name, the campaign did at least put a human face on NatWest.

'There has been a benign neglect of the personal customer base in banking,' Wanless explains, 'but it's a question of getting into place a lot of building blocks. Looking back, we've changed a hell of a lot. As you go through it, it's like watching something in slow motion, but we've now got over 400 personal account executives in place, plus the back- up teams behind them.'

As no one can keep the details of 400 customers in his or her head, Wanless ordered a massive computer system containing all relevant details of all customers. Now, branch staff can see everything about a customer in one file.

There is also a pay-off: as more customers get used to talking to NatWest on the phone, the number of branches is shrinking by more than 100 a year.

'If anything, that rate'll increase,' Wanless declares. 'But how quickly it'll increase will depend on how successful we are at building relationships with customers. The better we are at it, the more evidence there is that customers welcome the chance to pop into a physical location and talk about financial affairs, the more branches we'll have. At the end of the day, customer requirements will dictate what we do.'

The latest weapon to be brought into the fray is interactive television. NatWest's US arm has been experimenting with a system that puts account details on to customers' home TV screens, along with a live picture of the executive they are dealing with.

'That could come over here,' Wanless insists. 'After all, we are in all the games that are being played. We just want to find out what customers want.'

One thing they want is no charges, especially if their account is in credit. But Wanless joins Martin Taylor in warning the days of that practice could be numbered.

'To a degree', he argues, 'the future of free-if-in-credit banking depends on the extent to which we can get costs down. If interest rates are low and if technology doesn't make massive changes to the cost base, then we will have a lot of unprofitable personal customers, even more than there are now. Then it depends on how well we sell other services.'

You have been warned.

(Photograph omitted)

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