Metro Bank: Sublime or ridiculous?

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Media captionThe new bank opened on 29 July 2010

"It's like going from the sublime to the ridiculous," says Malcolm Berman.

Queuing in the big, snazzy, new banking hall of the first Metro Bank branch in Holborn he gave a professional appraisal.

He used to be a bank clerk himself just over the road at a branch of the old Williams & Glyn's bank and things could not be more different from his old employer.

"It is a complete sea-change. People went to a bank and got depressed. I have had some fun today and that's got to be a good thing," Malcolm says.

The founders of the privately owned Metro Bank certainly do not think their enterprise is ridiculous.

But they certainly want it to be different from the traditional UK banking experience.

Image caption "A bit more friendly," says Peter McLean

And less than an hour after opening, co-founder Vernon Hill was certain he was onto a winner.

"The customer acceptance is very strong, we hear nothing but great things, it is time for change," he said.

How could he tell?

"I have opened 500 similar locations in America in multiple new markets and you can feel it, both before, during and after the opening," he pointed out.

Fit and proper

Vernon and his colleagues started planning their new bank before the credit crunch started in 2007.

At the time, opening a new bank might not have seemed such a bright idea, but the wind is firmly behind them now.

The government and the authorities all say they want more competition in the High Street for our established banks.

But Metro Bank's executives have had important regulatory hurdles to jump.

They have had to be vetted carefully by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), to ensure they are fit and proper and know what they are doing.

Image caption Michael Richardson hopes other banks will "wake up"

Their operations and business plan have been scrutinised carefully and the bank's backers have put £75m into its finances to ensure its first two branches can open with a large financial cushion.

Craig Donaldson, Metro Bank's chief executive, says it has not been easy.

"They have put us under a massive amount of scrutiny and significant due diligence, but there should be," he said.

"Over the 18 months we have had hundreds of meetings, exchanged thousands of e-mails and provided four or five foot of paper - they really investigated what we were doing."

In the queue

Among the would-be customers queuing to open new accounts, the idea that Metro Bank will offer something new and better had gained a firm hold.

"This is part of a new breed of banks I think, a movement towards banks being more involved with their customers - it promises something a bit more friendly," said Peter McLean from East London.

Michael Richardson said he hoped Metro Bank would shake up the banking industry.

"What are they going to do for me? Well firstly they are not going to charge me for going overdrawn, even arranged," he said.

"Hopefully some of the other banks will wake up - in one way or another they are all the same."

Albert Bediako had a very specific reason for disliking his current bank - it had mis-sold him a payment protection insurance policy.

"I am testing them [Metro Bank] out. I want to give them a try and see how good they are to customers," he said.

Location, location, location

So far the consortium behind Metro Bank has spent £15m, including recruiting the staff and leasing and fitting out the first two branches.

Finding the right sites on main roads for all its branches is a key feature of its strategy.

"We need great locations, corner sites with high ceilings, where we can create a fantastic environment and give a great experience", said the bank's chairman Anthony Thomson.

"For years and years people have been able to shop at nights and when it suits them but they can't bank when it suits them."

Some of the money Metro Bank has spent has been on a single computer system that will handle all its customers' accounts and details, and provide staff with a "single view" of a customer's affairs.

It believes this will bring it a huge advantage as staff will be able to deal with customers quickly and easily, and more cheaply than at established banks.

Vernon Hill says some established rivals in the UK run 15 to 20 different computer systems for handling different customer accounts, which may not be connected to each other.

"One of the reasons banking services in the UK have been so poor is that their IT services are antiques - that's putting it politely," he said.

"We can open your account and send you out with a credit card in just 15 minutes."

Making money

If it meets its target of opening 200-250 branches in Greater London within 10 years, Metro bank will still be much smaller than the traditional big national bank chains.

But it should still become very profitable quite quickly.

Each branch will only need customer deposits of between £20m and £30m to provide a base for profitable lending.

And the bank estimates it can attract sufficient customers simply by gaining just 5-10% of the local banking market around each branch.

"It will be a hugely profitable bank at that stage," Anthony Thomson predicts.

Other potential new entrants to High Street banking, such as Virgin and Tesco, have realised the same thing.

In a few years' time many more people across the UK may start to see some real competition for their money.

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