Where to go when you don't trust your bank manager

Advice for SMEs.

Whether that business is large, small or part of the squeezed middle, there is little doubt that the fight to find and keep customers - and indeed to make money from them - is harder than it has been for a long time. One area where this is very evident is in the continuing struggle to access funds. Many owners of small and medium-sized businesses are still finding it difficult to get the funding they need from their bank.

The banks counter this criticism with a valid argument that the demand simply isn’t there and many would-be borrowers simply don’t want to take on more risk at a time of great uncertainty. Nevertheless, figures reporting the number of loan applications turned down suggest that the banks are still busy taking risk off their balance sheets and as a result are either refusing to lend at all or setting very high prices on their lending.

While it is clear that the banks are in a difficult position — castigated for being both too reckless and now for being too conservative — there are some very serious long-term implications from the apparent breakdown in relations between small business owners and the banks.

It wasn’t all that long ago when bank managers were the most valued and trusted advisors for those running small businesses. 

But as a recent survey (organised by Hitachi Capital Invoice Finance, which admittedly competes directly against banks to provide an alternative means of finance) shows, trust in bank managers is currently low. Only 21 per cent of SME owners questioned said they would trust advice from their bank manager. While it’s easy to dismiss the report’s findings as a PR exercise, they tally with other polls measuring the general public’s opinion of bankers (notably the Edelman’s Trust Barometer).

Put a group of business owners together in a room to talk about finance and it won’t be long before one or more bemoans the loss of personal banking relationships and the switch to centralised, call-centre style customer service. The days of a local branch manager having a close relationship with local businesses and being able to make appropriate lending decisions (possibly over a round of golf or a G&T) are gone. For some the more strategic overview of a regional risk committee makes more sense in the modern age. But while we all welcome that added professionalism, it’s difficult not to feel that something has been lost in translation. Many business owners would welcome a move back to a more responsive and locally aware banking system.

If business has lost trust in banks, what about other advisors? In his inaugural address in June ICAEW president Mark Spofforth made it clear that rebuilding trust in the accountancy profession was a major objective for his year in office.

“It worries me deeply that the profession I joined isn’t held in the same esteem that it was when I started out as a trainee”, he said, before adding that these concerns are shared by other qualified professionals.

On the evidence of this survey, things are already improving. Hitachi found that 43 per cent of respondents trust the advice they were given by accountants, a far higher score than for any other type of advisor. This is excellent news for a profession that has experienced considerable self-doubt in the wake of the financial crisis.

There is a long way to go, but the importance of such a key customer group being happy with the advice they get from accountants is underlined by further research from the technology company Portal. This piece of research was into the importance consumers place on service. It found that 52 per cent reported they would change supplier as a result of poor service. See a name and shame graphic listing some of the worst offenders.

If trust in the accountancy profession is to be built, then chartered accountants in firms of all size and shape will have to continue to provide excellent standards of service and to provide insightful and meaningful advice, especially to business clients. As Spofforth rightly pointed out in his inauguration address: “Trust has to be earned – and once lost it can take years to rebuild. It is fundamental to a well-run economy and to a properly functioning society. And it is a concern, a worry that only we as a profession can address.

"We need to show that we deserve people’s trust and we need to work hard to earn it.”

This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.