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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 09:52 GMT
Nordic bank markets thrifty image
Steve Hill and Derek Burgess, managers at the Leeds branch
Mr Hill and Mr Burgess market to local businessmen
Sarah Toyne

There was no gorgeous blonde on reception.

Excuse the stereotype, but this was a Swedish bank.

But as you would expect the design was clean and minimalist.

The bank's interior
The bank's design is reminiscent of Ikea
Welcome to the Scandinavian version of bespoke banking, but Yorkshire-style.

If you don't hang out in corporate finance circles or have Nordic heritage, you may not have heard of Handelsbanken.

It was founded in 1871 and is now Sweden's largest bank with more than 500 branches in the Nordic countries.

It has been over this side of the North Sea for 20 years, with branches in London, Manchester, Nottingham, Reading - and this branch in Leeds, which was opened in June 2001.

The operations originally concentrated on Nordic business in the UK, such as Volvo, but in 1999 it took the decision to try and get a slice of homegrown British business.

It plans to roll out more branches in the UK over the next few years.

Ikea simplicity

Banks are often stuffy places, with dark leather sofas, marble floors or patterned carpet, and lots of officious-looking people in dark suits.

People in Yorkshire and particularly Leeds are very thrifty and that follows the Handelsbanken way

Steve Hill
account manager
To someone with a limited appreciation of Scandinavian culture, it was Ikea meet office, meet bank.

There were white walls, simplistic lettering on the doors and partitioning in lightly-coloured wood, except someone else had done the job of unpacking and assembling the furniture - and presumably had been spared a bun-fight at the check-out desk.

But you would probably expect something different from a bank that comes from Sweden, a country known for its minimalist designs and "sensible" thinking.

Yorkshire fusion

It is precisely the image that the bank is trying to market in Yorkshire, but with a distinctly local flavour.

Flags at the bank
The bank aims to combine Swedish style with Yorkshire thinking
Steve Hill, an account manager at the branch, and Derek Burgess, area manager for the bank, are keen to stress how this Swedish-style is being marketed to Yorkshire businessmen.

Swedish concepts of style, minimalism and simplicity, are being closely allied to the Yorkshire way of thinking.

"People in Yorkshire and particularly Leeds are very thrifty and that follows the Handelsbanken way," says Mr Hill.

"It is functional and prudent. Yorkshire people recognise that. They like value - Yorkshire people will try and get something for nothing when they can."

Family affair

Just how far this thriftiness stretched was keenly illustrated by the involvement of the branch manager's wife in its decoration.

Picture by branch manager's wife
Thrifty decorations by the branch manager's wife
She had assembled the Handelsbanken logo - a design composed of blue bricks - on one of the walls in the meeting room.

She had also painted two colour co-ordinated pictures in blue and aquamarine: one embedded with a leaf print, the other with a shell-like swirl.

Bespoke banking

Despite its minimalist business ethic, Handelsbanken is not your average high-street operation and this is partly where the biggest challenge lies in the banking market today.

Bespoke banking services have mushroomed in the UK over the last few years, but some would say too far.

Disillusionment with a growing emphasis on call centres, cost-efficiencies and centralized services, has led to a growth in private client banking.

Mr Burgess says that the bank wants to step into this vacuum left by the departure of the traditional bank manager. It is not for rate tarts or those who want gimmicks, he says.

"The concept is better service than the competition."

There is also a high degree of autonomy given to each individual branch. He says that local branch managers are often referred to as "Managing Directors".

Branch performance is also measured on return on capital, not volume of sales or activity targets.

The bank is aiming to capitalize on Leeds' "villagey atmosphere", and gain business through contacts.

It does not cold-call, or "waste budgets" on mass-marketing campaigns.

Apparently this is not the Handelsbanken way.

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