The passing of Michael Allen is a huge loss to the retail banking sector. On a personal level, it is very sad news for all of us who knew him, valued his wisdom and enjoyed his company. Mike sadly died recently and his funeral was last week. In my near 20 years of covering retail banking, I have been fortunate to meet many hundreds of bankers, consultants, vendors, marketeers, tech specialists, investors and analysts. Few have enjoyed the same level of global impact on retail banking that Mike exerted. And very few were as amusing, kind and inspirational as Mike. I never, once, heard an unkind word said about him. He helped me in more ways than I can adequately describe in a brief note.

He was a one-off and it is the end of an era. When I was asked to put together a small group of industry experts to serve as members of a Retail Banker International editorial advisory panel, he was quick to volunteer. When I needed a speaker for a conference, he was of course excellent.

Mike’s father had been the hard-working manager of Midland Bank in Torquay and always wanted Mike to follow in his footsteps.

Allen International was founded in 1992

Michael Allen founded Allen International in 1992. He grew the company to be the undisputed world leader in financial services for branding and retail design.

It started with a first client win at AN HYP Spaarbank in Belgium. In realty, it was Mike sat on an Orangebox chair with a phone stuck to his ear, ringing up potential clients.

Fast forward 30 years and he worked with over 350 banks-not a misprint-350 banks around the world-and I mean every corner of the world. Allen became a world-renowned leader and strategic thinker in financial services for digital and physical branch transformation.

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By good luck, he was also one of the first executives I met when I switched from the automotive sector to retail banking in 2005. I learned more in that first meeting than in most meetings before and since. I was to enjoy many meetings over the years. He became one of the most trusted, amusing and knowledgeable sources one could wish for.

Allen’s travel schedule was crazy

At the time, I thought I had a challenging travel schedule. Up and down each week from home in Edinburgh to the office in London, with conference and roundtable chores around the world in pre-Covid times. While I had inched up the BA loyalty tiers, I was merely an amateur compared to Mike-his travel schedule was crazy.

I once bumped into him in Singapore. DBS was launching a flagship branch in the Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower: another Allen International design. That was an interesting project and after he summarised the project, we were off on a tour around the world as he set out the other projects that the firm was working upon.

On another occasion, I encountered him in the lounge at Heathrow. He was setting off for Mongolia or it may have been China. It was hard to keep up.

His clients and his staff loved him. There was a significant branch transformation project for Emirates NBD. Digital-first branches for Santander, embodying the bank’s tech-plus ethos.

Chase, Santander, Virgin, Bank of China, ABSA, CIBC and the sweet smell of success with Helm

Designs for Chase, AIB and Capitec all married the best of the physical channel with the latest technology. When Virgin wanted to take its online offer to the high street in the form of Virgin Money Lounges, it was another project for Allen International. The Haymarket London, lounge was stunning.

Other notable projects included work for Itau Unibanco, Bank of China, ABSA, ICICI, CIBC, Bank of Beirut and Am Bank Malaysia.

And my favourite: the just bonkers idea or so it seemed to me of Helm Bank. Mike called it the multi-sensory experience. An attempt to do for banks what supermarkets might enjoy by tempting customers with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Or Abercrombie & Fitch had done by spraying its signature cologne throughout its stores. So, Mike rebranded the tired and traditional Banco de Credito of Columbia to Helm Bank and created the world’s first multi-sensory bank. A fruity, zesty aroma was decided on for the branches, following customer focus groups. There was, needless to say, a positive result. An approval rating of 90% from customers and a 50% increase in new customer numbers.

And that kind of return on investment as well as his personal touch was a constant. He could not even go off on holiday, without visiting local bank branches and spotting a business opportunity. So, a holiday to Mauritius resulted in a visit to a branch in Port Louis and ultimately a contract from MCB Mauritius. The bank ultimately rolled out the Allen design to 40 of its branches and grew its market share to 45%. And Mike was as enthusiastic about a project for a small regional player such as MCB as he was about projects for global multinational banks.

Accenture acquired Allen International in 2016. Mike wrote a highly readable book on his life in banking: ‘A total bunch of bankers’. He remained hugely quotable and a shrewd observer of the sector. I pass on my condolences to his friends and family and hope they realise the level of affection and respect held for Mike throughout the retail banking community was massive. I was fortunate to know him and will miss him hugely.