A challenge to the impersonal nightmare of today’s banking

The boss of Coutts, Peter Flavel, is stepping down (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Archive)
The boss of Coutts, Peter Flavel, is stepping down (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Archive)

Like clockwork, a notice drops in my email, telling me there are documents I need to sign. It’s from a well-known UK bank, one of the biggest and best-known, and is a hangover from when I was trying to open a business account.

The experience was a nightmare, sheer torture, leading to frustration, blood boiling… words that do not even begin to encapsulate the sheer difficulty of negotiating their system. Could I get beyond first base? Not a hope.

Every time I seemed to be making progress, I would end up back at zero. Could I talk to a human being? In theory, but only if I phoned a number and waited, and waited.

Eventually, someone in the call centre thousands of miles away — there was a delay on the line, so it had to be that distant — would pick up and on each occasion we would go through the same rigmarole of checks and robotic questioning.

Then they would simply disappear or refer me to a colleague somewhere else in the vast empire, and we’d begin again.

Sensing my exasperation — it wasn’t hard — they suggested the local branch might be able to help. Well it would, except it had just shut its doors for good.

So I gave up.

The episode confirmed what start-ups and SMEs — the very ones eulogised by politicians as the bedrock of our enterprise society — complain of dealing with day in, day out.

The traditional banks don’t want to know them, the “service” they provide is impersonal, often it is hopeless.

That sense of the detached and uncaring was reinforced in the dispute between Coutts and Nigel Farage.

There, you had an organisation, Coutts, part of a massive group, NatWest, that claimed to pride itself on offering hands-on, personal banking.

Coutts was worried about the danger to its own image — not to the client, note — of continuing to have the former Ukip leader on the books. A body with the Orwellian title of the Wealth Reputational Risk Committee compiled a secret, 40-page report on Farage, their own long-standing customer don’t forget, on his history, personality and finances.

It was bizarre, and far removed from the friendly, cosy image the bank likes to convey.

This was an organisation that had lost the plot, evidence of institutional, formulaic, behaviour.

The signal it sent, about the banking industry generally, not just Coutts, to not believe the corporate advertising and glossy claims to care, to be on your side, was dreadful.

Which is why it was intriguing to meet Sean Kiernan, founder and CEO of Greengage, the new, fintech merchant bank.

As he puts it, Greengage is a disruptor, a challenger. It’s also small and as such, is not taken seriously by the behemoths.

They might be wrong to be so dismissive, however — Kiernan and his fledgling financial services provider might be on to something. Greengage is supplying to its customers — individuals, SMEs, firms that work in crypto (usually eschewed by the “legacy” players) — in return for a flat fee, access to their own banker.

They can contact them via email, phone or even meet face-to-face at Greengage’s City offices near Mansion House, and their concerns will be dealt with.

Kiernan has set a limit of 200 clients per banker, since “after that, studies show the level of attention they provide is diluted”.

An American, although he bears little trace of an accent, Kiernan, 40, was educated in the US and completed an MBA in Switzerland before cutting his financial services teeth working for Credit Suisse and its Clariden Leu private banking subsidiary.

While there he realised that the “plumbing of financial services was changing and digitising.” The gap he spotted was to combine that new technology with human beings.

“What we’re doing is something that I call ‘digital merchant banking’. It’s about rebasing what was historically merchant banking in the UK and bringing it into the technical age.”

His clients are “tech-savvy”, they’re comfortable using e-money payment services.  On to that they bolt what would be regarded as an old-fashioned bank, involving real contact with real human beings.

“We’re a hybrid. We’re fintech, with an app, a website and 24/7 online banking, but we combine that with a personal service.”

Individuals pay £750 a year, SMEs and commercial crypto users, £1,000.

“You get a dedicated person you can call if there’s something you need or wish to discuss. It’s the same person every time, and if they’re on holiday or away, you get a personal back-up.”

Listening to this and witnessing his enthusiasm gives grounds for optimism.

All is not lost, there may yet be hope.