By Eamon Quinn
A leading consumers’ advocate has called on Ulster Bank’s new chief executive, Jane Howard, to guarantee she will oppose closing more branches until customer service across the industry improves significantly.
Ulster Bank, the third largest lender in the Republic, confirmed the appointment of Ms Howard, who joins from one of the top executive jobs at Ulster-Bank-parent RBS. Chief financial officer Paul Stanley, who has been running the bank since the shock departure this year of Gerry Mallon to head up Tesco Bank in the UK, becomes deputy CEO.
Ms Howard faces the challenges faced by other Irish lenders, including customer dissatisfaction over a shrinking branch network and political controversies for crisis-era loan sales, as well Central Bank censure for the banking industry’s €1bn tracker mortgage scandal.
Dermott Jewell, policy and council adviser at the Consumers’ Association of Ireland, said it was “a time for a change” as customer services at Ulster and other lenders deteriorate.
As managing director of personal banking at RBS, Ms Howard was responsible “for the distribution transformation strategy, and for leadership of the branch network, telephony, webchat, messaging and complaints across NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Ulster Bank NI,” according to her LinkedIn page.
She was in the spotlight this year when RBS announced redundancies and the closure of about a quarter of its network of NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland branches, though following a political outcry, it deferred some of those closures in Scotland.
The closures were necessary as more customers switched to using its bank services online, she said at the time.
The Financial Services Union last year said it was “shocked” over an Ulster Bank plan to close branches which accounted for about a fifth of the network in the Republic. But more branch closures does not appear to be on the agenda at Ulster Bank for the time being.
At RBS, she hailed the introduction of online video services to help customers buying mortgages.
Following the appointment of Francesca McDonagh at the top job at Bank of Ireland in late 2017, Ms Howard — who was born in Bury in Greater Manchester — becomes only the second woman to secure a CEO post at an Irish bank.
Ms Howard “brings a track record of strong leadership, intense customer focus, drive, and enthusiasm,” said Ulster Bank chairman Des O’Shea. “Her deep banking experience gained across a variety of senior leadership roles will bring considerable value,” he said.