Business News Wales recently had the opportunity to speak to Ross McEwan, the CEO of RBS.
So where did it all begin for you with RBS?
I started with RBS six years ago within the retail area of the business. I came over from Australia and my view was what an amazing opportunity to see if we could turn around one of the greatest iconic brands in the UK – RBS. I then took over as CEO nearly five years ago and it's been a very interesting time for us as a bank as we’ve downsized from where we were when I took it over; 38 Countries down to about 12 of which 90% of our assets are back here in the UK in the Republic of Ireland.
We’ve gone through 28 conduct litigation issues of massive proportion and reshaped the bank now to becoming a really good bank for customers. I am pleased with the shape we’re now in. I’m also very pleased with the fact that we've dealt with all of the big conduct litigation issues. I say big as there are many other smaller ones that have been an impediment of this business.
We’ve gone back into profitability, which is always good for a bank. We’ve got very strong capital levers and we’re funding the real economy of the UK, particularly in the SME market. There is a lot more to do, but I'm pleased with where we’re sitting today given what we’ve gone through and I think people will see this bank as a very good player in this market place going forward. Crucially, we’re serving our customers and supporting them, which is what matters most.
What is the future of the brand?
NatWest is our primary brand in England and Wales, we’ve got the Royal Bank Scotland in Scotland and we've got Ulster Bank in Ireland. We also have many other brands; we are a house of brands, so for example Coutts is the private bank for England and Wales and Adam and Co for Scotland. We are very comfortable running many brands so the fact that we’ve just bought for example, Freeagent, which is the accounting software business, it will stay as Freeagent. We have no intention of changing the branding on it and we're comfortable in setting up different businesses under different brands as long as they mean something to the communities they are operating within. Lombard for example, asset finance and invoice financing has been a brand we have used for years and years and it’s still out there and runs incredible strongly.
What’s your thought on Brexit? Does the company have a position? Do you have a position?
The only position we’ve taken on Brexit is getting ourselves ready for our customers because no matter what happens, we are the largest business bank in the UK that needs to serve customers. If they’re trading across Europe or have subsidiaries in Europe, we are there to look after them. We have a number of very large corporates in Western Europe who trade across here. We need to make sure that no matter what happens at the end of March, we can serve them. We’ve set up an operation using a licence that we’ve got in Amsterdam so that our commission and corporate customers can continue to facilitate and operate their businesses.
Do you think we should be confident?
Well I think at that the end of the day we have to be confident there is a solution because we don't want damage done to the UK or to Europe and I think if everybody gets together and realises this is it, the decision has been made, now let’s find a solution that actually doesn't damage the European continent or the UK things will be OK.
Do you see any trends Wales, Is there a specific opportunity for Wales?
Well Wales if you look at the statistics, is sitting at 55% in our PMI index, which is a good number and it’s actually stronger than many other parts of the UK. I’ve been over here in Wales for three days and there is a clear level of confidence about the country and it's an opportunity for the future. Unemployment is very low and businesses generally are doing ok.
The Wales productivity report we’ve launched actually shows even in the SME market there is a billion pounds being left on the table because productivity is not as high as it could be or should be, but the solutions to that aren’t that difficult. I think when people talk about productivity they think of something that must be massively elaborate, but when you see the report that's come out there's five issues that companies could address and only one of them has to do with technology and equipment. To improve productivity the other four have to do with colleagues and their business so those things they can address quickly, bringing in new technology, machinery takes a bit longer, but four of the five are at their fingertips.
I've been out and spoken to a lot of businesses here and I see a lot of opportunities here in Wales, there’s a very stable workforce, housing is not expensive for workers here therefore the attraction of labour should be very good and I think businesses are very optimistic and so they should be.
The ICC – what's the thinking behind your relationship with those guys?
Firstly we liked the business proposition they had there with the new convention centre. It is a magnificent resort. We saw all of the designs about two years ago and I thought this is fantastic for Wales, and when you look at the team behind that you can see it. They’re an absolutely professional group of people and we were very keen to back that. I was out there this month having a look at the site, it’s certainly emerging out of the ground. The steel framework is up and you can see it's going to turn into I think, a global convention centre. It is going to be world class and I think it’s going to attract a lot of business into Wales. Just the layout of it, the thinking that's gone behind the connection between the very large hall that can seat hundreds of people for dinner right through to the main auditorium that seats I think up to 1500 people and the breakout rooms, It’s just so professionally done. I think this will be a major attraction for Wales – the question then will be is there enough accommodation as more and more people come to Wales to use the centre. I think that will be the next issue to address, but I think it’s a wonderful problem to have. I think it’s a fantastic centre.
What advice would you give to any businesses looking to relocate to Wales in terms of the economy and the opportunities?
The first thing I’ve been impressed with is you've got a good pool of labour, you’ve got fantastic universities, you've got the willingness of the local government and the councils and banks like us to get behind businesses. It's a pretty good ingredient. It's not that far from the other main centres so for the people who do need to connect into London or the likes it’s not that difficult to get to. Despite all of the said road traffic and travel issues it’s not that bad in the scheme of things, so I think it's got quite good connectivity, so I think yes, it’s a good business environment. You’ve got a centre here in Cardiff, you’ve got Newport up the road, you’ve got Swansea not that far away, if you actually started working all of these hubs together, the universities and their entrepreneurs I think you’ve got a really good environment. It just seems reasonably buoyant to me without a mass of over optimism. I think once you get a bit exuberant about these things you can make some bad decisions. There’s a confidence about the place that I hadn't seen in 18 months ago.
Do you have any views on the Tidal lagoon and tidal energy?
On renewable energy we are the largest provider of funding to the renewable energy industry in the UK, so we have the expertise to work with people who are thinking about it because that’s an area of strength this bank has had for a decade. We are the largest funder of renewables and that’s good for businesses in this sector because we want to support them.
The final one which will be controversial for you in a sense – will Wales win the next Rugby World Cup?
Despite talking against my own favourite team – the All Blacks, who must be up there, I think Wales has got a chance. Ireland I would probably put a nose ahead unfortunately at the moment, for the Welsh people – but they’ve both got great Kiwi coaches – so who knows. Wales is always a competitive side and I think they’ll spoil it for a lot of people because of their competitiveness – so who knows but I did predict the other day, possibly Ireland against my own team in the final, which will cause a lot of fall out for me back in NZ.