Exports are critical to the UK’s recovery – and banks are “open for business” to help the long awaited upturn, says Britain’s first female banking chief executive.
In one of her first media interviews since taking over as head of Santander UK, Spanish banking supremo Ana Botin spoke frankly of the challenges facing the financial sector and the UK economy.
Ms Botin, the only woman to hold ultimate responsibility for a large bank in the UK, said Britain was “moving in the right direction” – but warned of a patchy recovery and a surfeit of debt.
In Birmingham to visit Santander staff and branches, the woman in charge of Britain’s fifth largest high street bank said SMEs had a vital role to play in the fight back from the recession – but said many small businesspeople still distrusted banks.
“The SME market is a vital market for us – they are the hardest customers to get right, (although) I am not saying that retail is easy. Very big companies have finance directors that are very sophisticated, they have auditors. There are many thousands of SMEs, they are business people who have been around for decades. It is not easy, they do not have big numbers, they do not trust banks. In the end, they are very, very risky. A bank is all about risk, it’s about taking calculated risks.
“Small SMEs can play a huge part in growing the country’s economy. The key factor for them is to get to the next stage – the pyramid is very unbalanced.”
Ms Botin, responsible for delivery of service to 25 million customers in the UK alone, said Britain’s prospects for recovery were promising.
“We are going in the right direction here in the UK. Different regions will have different rates of recovery.
“The UK, like Spain, has too much debt. Exports are key. I think that the recovery is going to be very dependent on what happens in the outside world. Attracting outside investment is the key. The UK has so much going for it – it can become a centre for investment.
“The UK is a hugely important market for us – succeeding here is a huge challenge. That is our challenge – how can we give a very, very good service to 25 million customers.”
Ms Botin stopped short of criticising the regulatory regime facing the banking sector, but stressed: “We want to lend, but we have to have the right environment.
“As a general point, banks want to lend. Banks have a very, very important role in society – we are the engine.”
Santander UK says the new regime under Ms Botin will focus on customer service and increasing its share of SME business.
“We really have to focus on SMEs. We have a business model which is quite different from any of the other top 20 banks in the world.
“We have 100 million customers in major markets, from small SMEs to companies like Vodafone and Telefonica.
“My aspiration would be for Santander to be the best place to work, the best place for customers. I am looking to see many improvements.”
Santander is currently part way through an acquisition of 318 branches from the Royal Bank of Scotland, after previously swallowing up Alliance and Leicester, Abbey and Bradford and Bingley.