1 March, 2008 – The Swedish Connection
When Anders Bouvin moved to the UK to establish the new regional head office for Handelsbanken in the North, he knew he might have some tough decisions to make. Luckily, choosing the location wasn’t one of them.
Firm handshake? Check. Maintained eye contact? Check. Genuine smile? Check. The first thing that strikes you about Anders Bouvin is that he is exceptionally good with people. Being the head of Handelsbanken’s Regional Bank North in Great Britain, he is probably also good with numbers, but his people skills are especially interesting to note because his organisation is renowned for its inspiring treatment of both its staff and its clients.
Handelsbanken is a rapidly expanding Swedish bank, with over 600 branches and nearly 10,000 employees worldwide. Founded in Stockholm in 1871, it has been operating in the UK since 1984 through 48 branch offices and two headquarters -one in London and one that Bouvin has just opened in Manchester.
What is refreshingly different about this bank is that each of its branches is run like a small business, with each branch manager acting as chief executive and able to make decisions on everything from staff numbers to the colour of the branch’s curtains.
Bouvin, who is also an executive vice president of the Handelsbanken Group, is very proud of his organisation’s good old-fashioned approach to banking. “We are extremely decentralised. We believe that the best decisions are taken as close as possible geographically to the customers, i.e. in the branch offices. So while other banks in the UK are centralising more and more, and taking decision powers away from the local branch offices, we have been running our bank in the complete opposite direction. We empower people in the branch offices and trust them with the powers needed to take care of their customers. Just to give you an example, 98 per cent of the credit decisions in Handelsbanken are actually taken in the branches.
“This entirely local and highly personalised service leads to high levels of customer satisfaction because customers tend to want to talk to locally based decision makers rather than call centres. And I think this is the key reason why we are so successful in the UK and why we opened 22 new branch offices here in 2007 alone.”
Handelsbanken’s rapid growth was sparked by one very strategic move in 2002, when the bank defined the UK as a ‘region’ and started to conduct universal banking operations here.
Bouvin explains: “A regional bank is the highest operational level at Handelsbanken. It is basically a bank within the bank, authorised to make all the decisions at a regional level and offer all the support functions to the branch offices in the region.
“Defining the UK as a region meant that we now consider the UK as much our home market as Sweden. So we started to target all kinds of customers, from the largest PLCs to SMEs and individual clients, and not just Scandinavians. And we offer the full product range.”
Soon Handelsbanken realised that it could double the growth rate of its UK region by splitting it into two smaller regions with two growth engines. The bank’s well-established London head office remains but now supports only the South, while Bouvin has just set up the head office for the North here, in an 8,000 sq ft building at Manchester Airport. And he did it in record time.
“I arrived in the UK at the end of August 2007 to establish this new regional office wherever I thought would be most suitable. I quite quickly decided to set up our head office in Manchester and then started working on finding the right premises and staff, which we did very, very quickly. We’ve been fully operational since Jan 2.”
Originally from Sweden, Bouvin has lived in seven different countries and worked for Handelsbanken in five of them - he was head of the regional bank Denmark before moving to the UK. He says he arrived here with no preconceptions and took on board various opinions before deciding where to set up the new HQ.
“I think most people would agree that Manchester is the main city in the North. It could have been Birmingham but Birmingham was a bit too much to the south to be appropriate for the Northern regional bank, as the region also comprises Scotland. It could have also been Leeds; but Manchester’s size and reputation as the main city in the North dictated the decision.
“Manchester was very much a natural choice; it made sense for us to open up a new region here. It’s a very dynamic city and it has the international airport, which is a huge advantage.
“I decided against Manchester city centre as the traffic getting in and out of Manchester is difficult, and opted for Manchester Airport instead. From a communications point of view our location couldn’t be better.”
At the time of this interview Bouvin was still recruiting for the head office, which will eventually employ 35 staff. He says this size is typical of Handelsbanken, where decentralisation means there is no need for big head offices staffed with decision makers. The staff here will be mostly business support people who can back the branches and orchestrate a growth push in the region.
“We’ve had one Handelsbanken branch in Manchester for almost 20 years. In fact the Manchester branch was one of our first in the UK. And we currently have a total of 20 branches in the North. But we are targeting 15 - 17 locations in this region for 2008 and a few of those are in Manchester, so fairly soon we’ll see more Handelsbanken signs in the Greater Manchester area.
“The end of this year is as far as I want to look into the crystal ball. However I’m convinced that our growth will continue at a fast pace for many, many years to come. There are 29 million people living in the region that I’m responsible for – that’s more than all the Scandinavian countries together and there we have 550 branches, so the potential for Handelsbanken in Northern UK is huge.”
Of course the bank’s growth will depend on its ability to recruit suitable branch managers and other staff, but Bouvin is certain this will not be a problem. “One of the big advantages of having our HQ in Manchester is that it’s much easier to recruit good people here than anywhere else I’ve been.”
Crowned one of the best companies to work for in the UK by The Times last year, Handelsbanken is renowned for empowering its employees to succeed in their careers while also looking after their wellbeing. The long hours culture plaguing bank employees and most professional people in the Western world is not encouraged here, which means that Handelsbanken people actually have a life.
Forty-nine-year-old Bouvin lives in Wilmslow with his wife, who also works for Handelsbanken, and two children. He says the leafy Cheshire town is “a very nice residential area, with excellent shops and amenities and in close proximity to beautiful countryside”.
Having lived and worked in first-class cities around the world, including New York and Copenhagen, Bouvin was pleasantly surprised to find Manchester measuring up.
“Manchester is a big city and thus has all the offerings of a big city when it comes to culture, music, restaurants, cinemas etc. At the same time people are still kind here; you walk down the street and people say ‘excuse me mate’ and ‘cheers’. So there’s a kind of town atmosphere to Manchester, which you normally lose in large cities where everyone is anonymous and looks down at the street when they walk.
“From a private point of view the airport is very important. You can zip out of Manchester in no time at all and you can go basically anywhere in the world. We’re going to Asia in a month’s time and it’s a direct flight; that means a lot to us.
“And golf - I like playing golf and there are golf courses everywhere. So I think the quality of life is high in Manchester. I don’t think we would have enjoyed, from a quality of life point of view, as much living in say London for example.”
That does not mean that there is no room for improvement in Manchester, of course, and Bouvin is happy to offer a couple of suggestions: “When we first moved here we were looking to live in Manchester city centre but were surprised to learn that it was basically impossible to find a four or five-bedroom apartment there.
“The fact that there are no international schools in Manchester was another big surprise to us. Our children went to an international school in Copenhagen -teaching the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, which is something that exists all over the world. We took for granted that a large city like this would have an IB school but we had to rethink our children’s education when we arrived here. It worked out well in the end, our son and daughter go to very good English schools now, but I think Manchester would definitely benefit from the establishment of an international school that would allow the children of expats and people moving here from abroad to stay in the same school system.”
Sound advice and the best part is, you know which bank to go to for a sympathetic ear and a competitive loan package if you ever decide to build family apartments or an IB school in Manchester.
MIDAS, Manchester’s Inward Investment Agency
The financial and professional sector is the fastest growing sector in the North West with over 240,000 people employed across a wide range of disciplines. These include retail finance, wealth management, insurance, corporate finance, law and accountancy, which together generate an annual wealth of £9 billion.
There are over 50 banks based in Manchester, 20 of which are foreign owned, making it the largest corporate finance and stock broking centre outside of London. As well as retail banking, there are a large number of banks with corporate offices in Manchester including the Co-operative Bank’s headquarters employing over 10,000.
With deal values reaching nearly £20bn in 2006, it is no wonder that a large number of major global financial services brands such as Credit Suisse, Macquarie Bank, UBS, Kleinwort Benson, The Bank of New York and Rothschild are already here, whether it be for front or back office operations.
Accountancy practices have a significant presence in the city. These advise on all areas of corporate finance including management buy-outs, management buy-ins, mergers and acquisitions, flotation and stock exchange advice. Deloitte has its largest corporate finance team outside London and PricewaterhouseCoopers has a large Risk Assurance Centre in Manchester.
These operations are supported by the 4,500-plus students which graduate each year from Manchester’s universities in the areas of finance, accounting, business and economics. Within an hour’s drive, the graduate numbers increases to 17,000.
MIDAS, Manchester’s Inward Investment Agency, has assisted many companies like Handelsbanken in a move or expansion to Manchester through an extensive, free and confidential package of advice and assistance. These services include bespoke research, property solutions, recruitment and training support, introductions to networks and relocation support.
Voted ‘Best City for Business’, Manchester continues to be a thriving location for financial and professional companies to relocate to.
Source: All About Manchester