Top banker says Yorkshire business confidence is on the up

THE chief executive of business and commercial banking at RBS said he has seen a growing confidence in the Yorkshire economy and a “real desire” for the business community to work together. 

Ian Cowie is in charge of all NatWest and RBS lending to SMEs across the UK and speaking at a business lunch in Leeds, he said he believes access to finance is “really important” for businesses. He said the bank is working to make sure businesses have the opportunities they need and can access finance.

“We are focusing on access to finance and how we can deliver a level of expertise and support customers,” he said.

“Clearly there are frustrations out there but we are lending. We are looking at what we can do to help people lend money from us and we are being more transparent. We are making sure we have the right meetings and the right information to make the decisions quickly to help businesses.

“The people struggling to get money have to come and see us. We will take down the barriers as far as possible to try and make sure we have transparency out there to help.”

Cowie said the bank has a 24% market share in the UK and said it is the largest lender to SMEs.

The lunchtime event followed the publication of the independent review headed by Sir Andrew Large and management consultant firm Oliver Wyman which delved into the lending standards and practices used by RBS and NatWest for SME business lending. Cowie said the bank is now working to challenge itself.

“We now need to rebuild trust and think, how do we make ourselves easier to do business with? Relationship management is really important for us,” he said.

Cowie said the bank has placed 320 business specialists in branches to offer expertise and ensure relationship management is at its best.

However, speaking at the event, Cowie said he believes one of the biggest issues for businesses in general is still a lack of confidence.

He said: “A lot of small businesses have had to make tough decisions throughout the recession and so it will take a while for them to see confidence again.”

Speaking at the lunch, Yorkshire retail business, Zen Audio, said it is investing in new premises, as it looks to target larger markets after working with Natwest, owned by RBS.

The multisite online retailer has purchased new premises in Batley and has started an invoice financing arrangement with Natwest, which it says allows it to go after larger business and has enabled it to buy the premises, which happen to be in a former Batley Natwest branch.

Co-founder Matt Lawless, who launched the business with Steve Helm in 2009, said: “We are seeing improvements in the business, but that is because we are investing in it. We are seeing lots of little purchases coming through and these should get bigger over time.”

The £500,000 turnover business set out with a plan to become a multiwebsite audio products retailer. Having launched and developed its TheMicStore division since 2010, Zen Audio has concentrated on improving the retail experience for the sales of audio products.

In 2012, Zen Audio launched its second outlet, The Uke Store, which set out to simplify the process of buying Ukuleles online. This year, it launched its third division – an audio gadgets business.

The business said its aim is to widen the market for audio tools and products within the UK and Europe and is set to launch another division in April 2014.

“We’ve been working on ways which we can improve the business and from a retail perspective, we are seeing recovery, but is very slow,” Lawless said.

“It will take a while to see the effects of an upturn on the economy and I haven’t seen any dramatic changes yet. I do feel more positive but don’t have any concrete evidence that is happening.

“Each division in Zen is yet to reach its critical mass.”