It is time to break one of the RBI house rules. It does not happen very often, say about three times over ten years.
When I started on this desk more than 15 years ago, I was told among other things: we do not cover people moves, always use English English and avoid book reviews.
Such has been the RBI mantra since its first issue in May 1981.
During my tenure, people moves remain off-limits, notwithstanding the popularity of that feature within sister title Private Banker International.
A senior private banking executive jumping ship from say Credit Suisse to UBS is good for web traffic. A major US retail bank appointing a new regional mortgage sales executive in rural America – the type of people moves press release we receive – is for the bin.
But what about book reviews? I have broken the rule twice. First off was the masterly and very readable ‘Shredded: Inside RBS-the bank that broke Britain’. Anyone with a passing interest in banking cannot fail to find that a must-read work by Ian Fraser.
The second rule breaking review related to Vernon Hill’s eminently enjoyable ‘Fans not customers-how to create growth companies in a no growth world’.
I was of course a tad biased, being a fan of Vernon Hill going way back to his Commerce Bank days.
Suffice to say both previous reviews were favourable.
Bringing off the hat-trick of house rule breaking reviews is a new release, with the memorable title, A total bunch of bankers.
First off full disclosure: the author Michael Allen has been the source for almost all of the better bank branch stories we have run.
The reason for that is simple-so many of the branch stories worth publishing related to branches designed by his firm.
350 banks, 350,000 branches
Allen founded Allen International in 1992. He grew the firm to be the world leader in financial services for branding and retail design.
In nearly 30 years, he worked with about 350 banks, with his design projects responsible for over 300,000 branches.
The roll call of the more memorable projects is impressive.
Allen played a key role in the branch transformation strategy for Emirates NBD. The branches embody the bank’s tech-plus-ethos, integrating the best of physical with the latest in digital innovation.
Tech-plus-touch is also the theme at another major Allen project for Santander.
Personal favourites of the writer include other tech focused hits for Allen, such as its work with Bank of Ireland, Chase and Capitec in South Africa.
Then there is DBS, featured elsewhere in the June issue of RBI as the winner for best branch strategy at RBI’s 35th annual global awards. Allen is responsible for the design of one of the most stunning branches anywhere, ever, the DBS flagship in Marina Bay, Singapore.
Other highlights include projects incorporating major re-brands such as Ambank in Malaysa, Bank of Beirut in Lebanon and MCB in Mauritius.
Closer to home, Allen International bagged the brief to craft the Virgin Money lounges. Not an easy brief as Virgin needed a design that fitted its maverick identity. At the same time, a good number of Virgin Money’s more profitable customers are of a certain age and unlikely to appreciate loud music or flashing screens.
From Itau Unibanco in Brazil, Bank of China, Absa in South Africa and ICICI in India, Allen’s firm has played a key role in re imagining the retail bank. He has had a ringside seat as the branch has evolved, putting customers at the heart of everything they do. At least, the successful ones aim to do that.
Helm sweet smell of success
As Allen notes, many banks remain rather conservative in their approach. And then there was another personal favourite to report, Helm in Columbia.
Back in 2008 – it actually seems only a few years ago – Michael Allen suggested I might like to make space for Helm’s multi-sensory experience. The idea was actually not unique-Nike claims that adding scent to its stores increases intention to purchase. Allen told me that scent marketing had been around since the 1970s. I had not encountered any evidence of this in any bank branch redesign project, before or since.
The idea did indeed work with a fruity, zesty aroma finding favour in Bogota.
Allen sold Allen International to Accenture in 2016. It is no surprise that he now runs his own consulting firm Michael Allen & Partners.
I read the book in one sitting which is as good a recommendation as I can give. I rather doubt Michael Allen needs the royalties and to be blunt, however readable, the book will not make the top 10 sellers list. That would not have been the motivation for publication. It is a masterly summary of 30 years of the best of the best in branch banking.
And to anoraks like me and indeed anyone with an interest in the physical channel, it is hugely enjoyable and I wish the book well.