Dog Biscuits and Lollipops from the New Face of Banking; THE AMERICAN ON A MISSION TO SAVE US - AND OUR PETS - FROM 'HORRENDOUS' BANKS
Byline: The Interview BY SIMON WATKINS
VERNON Hill is everything you would expect from an American entrepreneur. He brims with go-getting confidence, optimism and an exuberant manner that - like his taste in ties - is nothing if not attention-grabbing.
And Hill is on a mission. As founder of Metro Bank, which plans to launch its first two British branches in a few weeks, he wants to save us. 'You Brits know the banks deliver a horrendous experience,' he says, sitting in the brightly coloured lobby of his soonto-open branch in the Holborn area of central London.
'All you have to do is walk across the street to the NatWest and you can see the difference is like that between night and day.' It would be easy to dismiss Hill, 64, as just another brash American. His bright blue and red bank branch feels as if it has been plucked from a cartoon while the dog biscuits and lollipops on the counter seem a touch gimmicky.
But Hill is a serious operator. He opened his first bank branch in 1973 at the age of 26 and 34 years later he sold Commerce Bancorp for $8.5 billion ([pounds sterling]5.7 billion) and pocketed a $400 million windfall.
He spent some of his money building the private Galloway National Golf Club course in New Jersey, not far from his home - the Villa Collina - the biggest private house in New Jersey at 46,000 sq ft.
But right now he has no time for golf. He talks eagerly about how he wants to 'make banking fun' but he also offers a ferocious criticism of how British banking has gone wrong. Hill mocks the vast banking groups - 'too big to fail means too big to manage' - and bewails their strategic errors. 'The big banks in Britain have given up on retail banking,' he says. 'They have commoditised banking. It's all about price and when you do that you then disinvest in the branches and in customer service.' It is customer service that Hill believes will make Metro Bank different, and contrary to received wisdom he does not believe customers care only about interest rates.
'Only seven per cent of people pick their banks because of the rates - it's convenience and service they want,' he says. 'In America we were offering half a percentage point below the best rates and it didn't stop us growing. Here in Britain, people look at these tables for the best savings rates, but you all know those rates are only on the first ten pounds for the first half an hour.' So Metro Bank will not offer the best rates, but it will aim to be the most convenient and pleasant place to bank, opening seven days a week from 8am to 8pm, with phone and internet banking also available. Call centres will be in Britain, but these services will not be at the expense of branches. 'We say the internet is important, but the branch is the cornerstone of the bank,' says Hill.
For Hill, banking is a type of retailing and he refers to his branches as 'stores'. …