Banking on new business ideas

I DON’T want to be a banker, I’m not a banker, never have been, a lot of my job is walking around here…” Anthony Thomson gestures towards the shop floor and his staff and says “…making sure they don’t turn it into a bank.” But sure enough we are in a bank – the Holborn branch of Metro Bank, the first new retail bank to be opened in the UK in over 100 years.

Thomson has never been easy to pigeonhole. The Newcastle-born one-time marketing man, one-time business networker decided that his third business would be setting up a bank two years ago in a fish and chip shop on Lisson Street. His new business partner is Vernon Hill, the founder of Commerce Bank in the US.

In 2001, Thomson met Hill on a trip to the US. Up until then he “didn’t know him from Adam.” He visited Hill’s business and wondered why UK banks couldn’t offer similar convenience: opening seven days a week and approving accounts faster.

After several years of cajoling, Thomson finally persuaded Hill to bring the business model over to the UK.

Despite having worked in marketing for most of his career, Thomson confesses that he never did any market research before embarking on his boldest venture. He explains that: “If you ask someone in the UK what they think about a new bank the only context they have for it is the existing banks – and this is so different and radical. It’s like Apple’s iPods: you can’t imagine them until you’ve seen them and experienced them. So there’s no point asking.”

Thomson is confident he will blow the roof off convention in the banking sector: “I’ve encountered four myths in UK retail banking that the banks themselves have perpetuated: one, nobody switches bank. Two, the only thing that drives customers is rate. Three, the only way to make money is to cut costs and degrade customer service, and, finally, nobody uses the branches anymore. It’s just not true. Look at Apple, all of their products are available online but people still go into the store on Regent Street because it’s a great experience.”

Just three months in, it is too soon to judge whether Metro Bank will take off -- so far it has four branches open and launched with £75m of shareholder capital. But Thomson is confident: “Some of Britain’s best businesses were born in recession because good ideas will out. Metro Bank will certainly outlive me. We have a ten year plan to open 200-250 stores in and around the M25.” Sounds ambitious but Thomson has a track record of beating the odds. Not every northern state school kid who leaves his education at 16 to sell ads in the local paper goes on to set up a bank.

METRO BANK | ANTHONY THOMSON

Age: 56
Born: Corbridge, Northumberland
Lives: Hampstead, London
Studied: Left Gosforth Grammar School at age 16
First ambition: “To be the next Eric Clapton”
Reading: The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek
Drinking: Collects and drinks red wine
Motto: “Half of success is getting up and going to work every day.”
Awards: Evening Standard 1000 most influential Londoners 2010; Marketing Magazine’s 100 most influential marketers 2010