Bernard Ginns: Yorkshire Bank’s looking bonza again

IT was just three years ago that hacks down under were dumping on Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks.

As far as they were concerned, the UK lenders were “a major blight”, “a nightmare”, “a complete waste of space”, “sub-standard”, “too small to matter”, “plain awful” and perhaps the least kind, “an albatross around National Australia Bank’s neck”.

Most of that was fair dinkum. But quite a few snags have been bunged on the barbie between now and then and today Yorkshire and Clydesdale are looking much more bonza for Australian investors.

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Back in 2012, Australia’s economy was a bewdy bottler, surfing the commodities boom, but the slow down in demand from China has had Antipodeans reaching for the grog (That’s enough, Ed).

The improving economic climate in the UK coupled with the cooling of Asian markets means that Australian investors are starting to reappraise their positions and look again at opportunities in the northern hemisphere.

NAB is set to announce full-year results tonight and with these is expected to provide a detailed update on the proposed demerger and initial public offering of its UK operations.

Under the plans, NAB will sell 20-30 per cent to institutional shareholders and 70-80 per cent to existing NAB shareholders. The shares will be listed on both the London and Australian stock exchanges.

The forthcoming transaction is likely to be completed in the early part of 2016 and is generating much excitement internally among the 7,200 staff.

At the helm of the UK operations is the colourful new chief executive David Duffy, who joined in June after working wonders with the turnaround of Allied Irish Banks.

The tall, charismatic Irishman is a world away from his clipped and rather staid predecessor, David Thorburn.

Mr Duffy “speaks in colour” and knows his way around international markets after a 30-year career in banking.

He spent his formative years at Goldman Sachs and it shows in his well-groomed appearance and highly confident manner.

Mr Duffy talks about being “obsessively customer focused”, something which proved central to his success in reviving the state-owned AIB.

Staff at Yorkshire and Clydesdale report a keen sense of momentum under his leadership.

It’s not a one-man show though. The board at National Australia Group Europe has been overhauled in anticipation of independence.

First NAB appointed City veteran and Dundee dynamo Jim Pettigrew as chairman in early 2014. This was followed by the hiring of Ian Smith, the head of Deloitte’s financial services mergers and acquisitions team, as chief financial officer.

NAB last week welcomed David Paterson to the board as deputy chairman, bringing with him more than 30 years’ experience in retail banking. He was formerly group CEO of Alliance and Leicester and oversaw the sale of the business in 2007 to Santander.

NAB added Adrian Grace, the CEO of pensions company Aegon UK, as a non-executive director at the start of the year.

Mr Duffy’s summer roadshow was well received by Australian investors and allowed him to present the UK operations in the most positive light in years.

Their infrastructure has seen some long-overdue investment, particularly in new technology.

Insiders add that customer surveys are pointing to an improvement, but acknowledge there is some way yet to go.

And the £1.7bn set aside in provisions at the behest of the regulator should help draw a line under recent mis-selling scandals.

Yorkshire and Clydesdale are set to become Britain’s largest challenger banks, bigger than Virgin Money and TSB.

Their scale means they have been something of a slumbering giant in recent years and their revival has to be ripper for the Yorkshire economy.