The customers' champion

Bill Dalton, Midland's boss, is not what you expect from the British banking establishment; the Hilary Clarke interview

"OH MAN," sighs Bill Dalton, chief executive of Midland Bank, sinking into an enormous sofa in his walnut-panelled office high up in the bank's City headquarters in Poultry. "I had a bad night last night."

Not exactly the conversation opener, or the kind of language, you would expect from one of the country's top bankers. But then 54-year-old Dalton, the mother of bank managers for 7 million of us, is an atypical member of the British banking establishment. He is Canadian for a start, with a strong North American accent to go with it. He is also very, very funny. Except for when it comes to the subject of banking, especially customer service. Then he is deadly serious.

Dalton is short of sleep because he has been driving around Chester at 2am, hunting for a hotel room after a dinner with clients of one of the bank's North Wales branches.

"I didn't have a clue where I was. I thought I was going to end up sleeping with the homeless people," he says.

Dalton might have had a spot of trouble finding a bed for the night on the Welsh border but he has found a home in the City since he arrived from Toronto in April to take up the top slot.

"I told the staff I'm not here on an assignment. This is my job," he says. In fact he told them he plans to run Midland till he retires. "I might even get to speak the language after a while."

Dalton has moved into the driving seat at Midland at a time of relative calm after a tumultuous period. The bank almost collapsed at the beginning of the decade under the burden of Third World debt problems, domestic bad debts and recession. It was rescued by intervention from the Bank of England and then, in 1992, by a takeover by HSBC Holdings, the world's biggest bank and Dalton's employer for the past 18 years. Midland's first- half operating profit in 1998 rose a healthy 10 per cent to pounds 908m.

Dalton came to Midland from Hong Kong Bank of America where he was also chief executive. HSBC is only the second bank he has worked for since starting his career as a teller with the Bank of Montreal. He was head- hunted by that bank for fast-track graduate employment while still a student at the University of British Columbia, where he majored in finance and economics.

"He has a brilliant mind. He was a phenomenal student, very good with concepts and numbers," said Lyall Knott, a lawyer and a friend of Dalton's since student days.

He is also, as the receptionist at his former bank in Canada put it when asked if she remembers Dalton, "a real people person". Two good reasons why the powers that be at Midland decided to appoint him chief executive.

Not that Dalton will hear any praise about himself. Indeed, he is reluctant to talk about anything personal. He wants to deliver the message about the bank's emphasis on customer service.

"See that book on the desk there," he says pointing. "Go and have a look at it." Inside are dozens of letters to customers who have written to the bank with queries and complaints, all typed up and waiting to be signed. "Any letter sent to the bank I reply to personally."

Treating the customers with kid gloves is, for Dalton, the key, in fact the only way to succeed. "A while ago for some banks customers were a bit of a nuisance and the banks might have been a bit arrogant and not exactly in tune with what the customers want. But a financial services agency that takes that attitude today is in big, big trouble," he says.

One way of improving the quality of service offered to customers is to simplify the services and products offered, Dalton believes.

"We need to sort out all that clutter. Midland used to have 50 or 60 savings accounts. Vector, Orchard. Does that really mean anything to you? he asks, referring to the names of old accounts offered by Midland. "You just think: 'Account, money, interest'. You want a bank that will sort it out for you."

New financial service products, he believes, are not necessarily the answer. "If we come up with a fancy new product, NatWest will have it tomorrow, Barclays will have it tomorrow, every one will have it tomorrow. You can't win on that basis. But if you have 45,000 staff members who know how important customer service is, then you can."

Dalton's trip to North Wales was just one of dozens of branch visits he has made since joining Midland in a bid to drive the message home to staff.

"Imagine you go into one of our branches and say to the cashier: 'I feel very distressed because my favourite third cousin has died. The good news is that she left me a million pounds.' I want cashiers to go: 'Ding-dong - a million pounds. Oh, you should be talking to one of our financial planners. Let me make an appointment with her.' "

If there is a long queue in the bank, say, at lunchtime, branch managers should be ready to offer customers coffee if necessary - anything to keep them happy, says Dalton.While taking care not to attack any of his competitors, he has strong views about the current Office of Fair Trading inquiry into banks offering lower interest rates on mortgage accounts to new customers than to older ones. "I think it is a lousy idea to set rates on an account, get a whole bunch of people to use it and then to change the rate," he says.

Judging by the peals of female laughter that suddenly emanate from the office next to Dalton's, his is a happy ship.

"That's what I like to hear," he says, making a murderous grimace and jokingly muttering under his breath: "I'll get you later."

Indeed, his management style represents a huge shift from a few years ago when Midland was one of the stuffier City institutions. "I can well believe the story about the employee who had been to see the chief executive and who was so nervous when he left that he walked into that cupboard in the wall there instead of the door. And stayed there until everyone had gone home," he says, pointing to a door in the wood panelling. "Some people here still have a problem calling me Bill. So, instead, they don't call me anything."

Over the past year the City has been rife with rumours about possible mergers and acquisitions in the financial services sector. Dalton says that, unlike other British bank bosses, he feels no urge to merge. "If we bought a bank in, say, Europe that was earning 6 per cent on shareholders' equity and we were earning 25, why should we merge? What good would that do our shareholders?" he asks.

So what about an acquisition to ensure growth? "We have no shopping list and we are not being shopped," he replies, pointing out that, with operations in 80 countries, HSBC is already a global bank. "In my previous life we did quite a few mergers. One thing I noticed is that they tend to take the organisation's eye off what is really important - guess what I think that is: customer service."

Dalton is understandably cautious about discussing the impact of the Asian crisis on HSBC. "We reported a major provision of pounds 1bn - we don't know if it's too much or enough. We think we are prudently provided for Asia, but there is a lot going on."

Nor does he see any great difficulty in the Hong Kong government's recent move to increase its stake in HSBC to 8.91 per cent, making it the biggest shareholder. "From our group's point of view it is another shareholder and we will treat it like we do all shareholders - with respect and understanding." he says.

Even so, according to one City analyst, events in Asia are likely to increase pressure on Dalton to perform. "HSBC will want to squeeze every drop of blood out of Midland under the circumstances" he adds.

Dalton, who grew up in the Canadian prairies, doesn't seem the kind of man to be daunted. "I did the 30-below walk to school as I'm delighted to tell my kids," he says, referring to the cold. His wife, Star, has come with him to London and they have bought a house in South Kensington "for the same price as half a Canadian province". His two adult children stayed in Canada.

Dalton is a whiz at explaining finance and banking in everyday language, and if he weren't so hell-bent on keeping a low profile, it would only be a matter of time before he was discovered by television.

Or maybe there are already plans to that effect. After all, Midland Bank has a 25 per cent stake in British Interactive Broadcasting, the joint digital television venture with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. A home banking channel is on the menu. My suggestion would be to make Dalton the presenter.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
people
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Arts and Entertainment
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
tv'Friends' cafe will be complete with Gunther and orange couch
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

KYC Analyst, Birmingham - £200-£250 p/d

£200 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: KYC Analyst, Key Banking Client, Bi...

Test Manager - Banking - Yorkshire - £450 per day

£400 - £500 per day: Orgtel: Test Manager - Banking - West Yorkshire - £400-£5...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone