Tuesday, 1 May 2012

NAB withdraws to the north - the end of innovation?



The announcement by National Australia Bank (NAB) that they are to close 29 of their business lending centres in the south-east of England and withdraw back to their northern roots, abandoning 80,000 customers, marks the end of an experiment initially started by John Stewart, then CEO of NAB, and more recently Lynne Peacock, until last year CEO of NAB in the UK.

John Stewart and Lynne Peacock worked together for many years at the Woolwich Building Society, where they were responsible for launching the UK's first flexible mortgage, the Open Plan mortgage, combining a savings account with a mortgage account, offsetting savings interest against mortgage interest. Ironically the Open Plan account was based on Australian flexible mortgages. Such was the success of the Open Plan account that Barclays decided to acquire The Woolwich and centre their mortgage business around their acquisition.

John Stewart was seen as an entrepreneur,leading Financial Services industry development and was subsequently hired by NAB to lead the business in Melbourne. He brought Lynne Peakock along, initially in Melbourne and then to lead the UK business consisting of Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank.

Once again, looking at how he could make a small player in a crowded market stand out from the crowd, he and Lynne Peacock came up with a strategy to take the strong Yorkshire Bank brand down to the sout-east and take on the Big 4 banks in their traditional territory. They came up with an entrepreneurial model where banks managers were allowed to operate like a franchise, to be directly rewarded for the performance of their branches, or Business Lending Centres, to be able to make lending decisions with less referral to the centre and therefore quicker decisions for customers. Their Business Lending Centres look like airline lounges, customers could use them to conduct their own business when in town, creating a very different customer experience. They even went so far as to organise 'speed-dating' for buinesses, whereby SMEs could meet other SMEs in order to do business with each other introduced by NAB. At the time  NAB was, once again, seen as leading the way in terms of a new banking model, of a new customer experience and indicating where the banking industry needed to go. The model was successful with the lending book growing at above market rates.

Many of the ideas that he and Lynne Peacock came up with have been emulated by other banks such as Handelsbanken (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/02/who-said-branch-banking-was-dead.html , http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2011/06/forget-virgin-money-or-metro-bank.html ), where the bank manager is master of his own business. NBNK in describing the type of banking they want to launch also describes something that is very similar to the NAB model. Metro Bank has gone some of the way towards this as has Virgin Money.

The reason that this has not worked for NAB is twofold. Firstly the focus was on commercial property lending. Since even before 2008 the commercial property market was overheating and finally burst, but like HBoS, NAB continued to lend and has, as a result, got a disproportionate amount of bad loans. Undoubtedly one of the reasons why the book grew so fast was because of the franchise model where the managers were paid in direct relation to the loans they made, which encouraged lending and discouraged caution. The second reason is that whilst NAB provided an excellent customer experience the customers were not prepared to pay for that. This is something that many banks face in a heavily commoditised market where there is the perception of 'free banking'.

In many ways it is a great shame (not least for all the people who will lose their jobs), that what NAB set out to do has failed. Certainly a number of the players, such as JC Flowers and NBNK, who have stated that they want to enter the UK banking market should consider whether acquiring the UK southern assets of NAB should be an option, rather than acquiring all of NAB UK.

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