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.

Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40000: SThree: As a Recruitment Consultant, y...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits