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Daily Telegraph: City comment: ‘the invisible man from Shell’

Daily Telegraph: City comment: ‘the invisible man from Shell’

Edited by Andrew Cave, Associate City Editor (Filed: 08/06/2004)

Barclays may love its branches but pruning costs is the only answer: Barclays managers given an upgrade

Barclays had trouble giving money away when it offered a free fiver to anyone in Croydon who cared to claim it. Now Britain’s third largest bank seems to be finding it even harder to sell the stuff. UK banking boss Roger Davis concludes that people don’t trust banks. Surveillance by Lloyds TSB produced even more unsurprising findings. Folk don’t like queueing at branches either.

Apart from swapping confusing TV ads by Samuel L Jackson for ones featuring Gary Oldman and Donald Sutherland, Barclays’ solution is to proclaim it loves its branches again. Remember when branches had managers like Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring with a bit of clout to make things happen?

In a decade of branch closures, Barclays did its best to make us all forget. Now it’s trying to wind back the clock. The bank is recruiting 1,000 staff for its 2,000 branches, upping cashiers’ salaries and promising branch bosses more autonomy. To pay for it, Barclays is cutting 800 jobs in places customers can’t see.

It’s crowd-pleasing stuff – unless you’re one of the 800 – but banks’ efforts to appear customer-friendly are often more about spin than reality. Abbey has still to turn banking upside down, while NatWest’s ads claiming customers can still phone its branches fail to point out that often they’ll be diverted to call centres.

Barclays’ action represents a 4pc addition to branch staff or half a person extra in each of its branches. Is that going to help persuade customers to buy more than the 2.6 Barclays products they already hold?

The time has passed when their high street branches gave a handful of banks an impregnable grip on the market. Electronics and plastic changed that. There are about 80 active mortgage lenders and as many issuers of credit cards, and most of them get along very well without branches, just as their customers do. The old guard will have to think of something else.

Maarten van den Bergh has an idea. He is the invisible man from Shell who (as you may not have noticed) has been chairman of Lloyds TSB since Sir Brian Pitman closed his account, and has spent much of this time trying and failing to bring off a merger with Deutsche Bank. Now he would like to bring off a merger with one of Lloyds’ peers in this country. Why, he wants to know, does it need five big banks? Wouldn’t two do?

He has no chance of being allowed to bring that off, as the Treasury’s Ruth Kelly effectively told him. He’ll have to make the business better without cosying up to Barclays or standing Abbey on its head again. Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS are managing to drive costs lower and profits up. Lloyds TSB’s black horse and Barclays’ eagle should be able to do the same.

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