Informal and open: it’s the retail bank of the 21st century and more
After two years as Head of Islands at Lloyds Bank Corporate Markets, Alasdair Gardner oversaw a redesign of the bank from Jersey to Guernsey.
He spoke to Ian Heath about the changes, including a recent major refurbishment at the flagship Broad Street branch
HAVING accumulated banking experience at the highest level in the UK and US, Alasdair Gardner has helped Lloyds Bank in Jersey and Guernsey through the Covid-19 outbreak.
Charged with modernizing banking in the islands, the pandemic has not deterred Mr Gardner in his efforts. On the contrary, things moved more quickly, culminating in the reopening of a new Broad Street branch.
Gardner said from the outset, customers are assured of a different experience when greeted by a branch agent armed with an iPad, rather than joining a queue.
“Part of my role was to look at how we are improving our customer offering in the islands, and Jersey as part of that, and how we are growing our franchise,” he said.
“The investment in the branch is a very tangible statement of what we are trying to accomplish. This is also part of our sustainability program in terms of reducing our carbon footprint.
“This is part of a program we have across the islands to invest in our iconic branches
“It’s about changing the way the client engages with an agency. If you walk in it looks different from a branch before.
“There are fewer counters and fewer screens. A customer walking through the door will be greeted by a colleague with an iPad. What we try to do is understand what the customer needs and help them rather than letting them wait in line.
Mr. Gardner explained that the changes were driven by a number of trends and goals, including the growing role of digital technology in people’s lives.
“We’re seeing more and more customers using our digital offering and we’re expanding our digital offering and helping around that,” he said.
“It’s also about making sure that when a customer comes in, they’re handled as efficiently as possible.”
He added that another key aim was to help vulnerable customers – whose needs had become particularly apparent during the pandemic.
“One of the things we’ve been doing throughout the Covid-19 period is really focusing on supporting those who need more help,” he said.
“We trained our colleagues a lot and a real example is that we got tablets, took them to nursing homes and allowed residents to use them for banking.
“We also worked with our frontline colleagues to ensure vulnerable customers had access to cash and other services at this time. We have kept all of our branches open throughout the pandemic. In some cases, we have moved to restricted hours but strongly asked our customers at the height of the restrictions to only come into branches when needed, so that we can keep them open for our vulnerable customers.
Mr Gardner said the new Broad Street branch, with its more informal and open style, was “banking for the 21st century and beyond”.
“When I started in the bank, the branch took care of everything and the branch manager – who at the time was essentially a man – had the responsibility of opening accounts for young people, until big business,” he said.
“The branch network is now very focused on our retail customers – making sure we provide the right mortgage advice, helping people plan their finances and personal banking.
“We then have a separate commercial team that takes care of our commercial or our SME [small- to mid-size enterprise] clients. Part of what I’ve been doing for the past two years is looking at the capabilities of these teams.
He added: “We have enhanced the skills of these teams to really be able to provide the specialist advisory capability in these different customer segments. It’s a different environment these days. It’s probably less formal than it would have been. There are certainly fewer obstacles.
“Change is always difficult, but the feedback we receive indicates that customers value informality. There are also many private rooms where customers can go with a colleague to talk about confidential matters.
Another big change the bank has seen, largely driven by the pandemic, has been the increase in hybrid working.
“Covid-19 has been really difficult, but the one thing that has helped immensely is flexible working. Every member of our team has the option, where appropriate, to work from home,” he said.
“Clearly you cannot run a branch from home, but across the islands we have 550 people and the vast majority of those not in frontline roles have worked from home.
“During the pandemic, we have made sure that anyone working from home can access the kit. It’s simple things like making sure they have a proper chair and desk. All our colleagues who needed it are equipped and able to work from home, which means that as we hopefully move towards the end, we can and will be more flexible with our colleagues and will work with colleagues around their work habits. It certainly moved us forward in our thinking about it.
Any good businessman will tell you that a company’s most important asset is its people.
Mr Gardner said one of Lloyds’ top priorities was to attract and retain good employees.
“We invest heavily in the training of our staff. It’s part of our DNA in terms of developing our colleagues,” he said.
“Our mantra is that we want to give colleagues the opportunity to develop as much as they want. It is clear that we must continue to develop them to meet changing customer needs and changing regulatory needs.
He added: “We are looking to build a talent pool, including more school leavers, so we are potentially looking at how we create graduate roles on the islands.” It’s also about making people understand that they can join the bank and have a different career because of the different skill sets we have.
“We have a marketing team, we have an HR team, we have an operational business, we have our frontline colleagues in commercial and retail banking. We have a large risk management team that manages our credit risk.
“It’s about letting people know that banking can be an interesting and varied career. We have teams that go to schools to talk about financial literacy, but also to encourage them to see banking as a place where they could see their career.
Mr Gardner said part of the bank’s philosophy was to involve staff as much as possible in local community and charity projects.
“One of the things we are really proud of is that we have our own foundation in the Channel Islands,” he said.
“Last year the foundation supported 28 charities with almost £1million in funding. On the back of that, we encourage our colleagues to act as mentors for charities, which is great for charities and also great for colleagues. The challenge is that this is a finite resource of people and we have ambitions to grow, like many other businesses, so we need to be as good as we can be at recruiting and retaining the best people.
In terms of business objectives, Mr. Gardner said the mortgage market and commercial lending in the housing sector were potential growth areas.
“We have real ambition around the growth of our mortgage portfolio. We have seen good growth over the past two years on our mortgage financing – we have continued to do mortgages throughout the pandemic,” he said.
“We are looking at our loan-to-value offerings, our multiple income offerings and our pricing. We see it as a real opportunity, but we also see another side to it. We see opportunities in commercial banking. We haven’t been as strong as we would like, so we’ve rebuilt our sales team over the past two years. Hopefully some of this funding will help homes being built on the island.
He added that the Lloyds Group also has “huge ambition and desire to be a leader in terms of the sustainability agenda”.
“In 2021 we have expanded our green funding to £5bn from £3bn. We have also raised, since 2016, £3.5 billion in green and sustainable bonds,” he said.
“We are also looking at what else we can do. If you look at the renovation of our branches, we are using more energy-efficient lighting. In 2022 we will have a 38% reduction in our carbon footprint in Jersey.
“We encourage colleagues to cycle to work and we have, through our Black Horse brand, a green growth finance initiative, where we will offer people reduced interest rates and no arrangement fees for asset financing specifically respectful of the environment.
“We educate our colleagues extensively on the sustainability agenda, looking at our own individual carbon footprints and looking at ways we can make a difference as a group. We have also committed to planting 10 million trees by 2030.’