The Big Interview: Alison Rose, highest-ranking woman in RBS

Growing up abroad in a military family, there was a stretch of time when Alison Rose aspired to the diplomatic service. That never panned out, but as the highest-ranking woman in the partly-rehabilitated Royal Bank of Scotland, she has certainly developed the strategic guile of a seasoned overseas attaché.

The Royal Bank has 300 managers in its Women in Business programme. Alison Rose aims to raise that number to 500 by the end of this year. Photograph: Gary Baker
The Royal Bank has 300 managers in its Women in Business programme. Alison Rose aims to raise that number to 500 by the end of this year. Photograph: Gary Baker

How else to explain the fact that Rose – a 20-year veteran of the group’s now-infamous investment banking division – is today heading up the commercial and private banking operations upon which RBS has largely staked its rehabilitation? As chief executive Ross McEwan fastidiously carves away at operations formerly ordained for global domination, Rose is charged with the new maxim of focusing on the bank’s home turf.

She joined National Westminster Bank as a trainee in 1992 after graduating from Durham University. By the time RBS took over NatWest in 2000, Rose was working her way through a series of jobs in the investment banking division which ultimately put her in charge of leveraged finance in the UK and Europe.

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She helped restructure the balance sheet in the aftermath of the financial implosion, which she describes as a “challenging” period in her career. She then got the nod in April 2014 to take over commercial and private banking, which now accounts for nearly half of assets at the pared-down group.

“It is a big change,” Rose concedes. “But I really like looking after businesses, whether they are very big multinationals with complicated needs, or they are small businesses whose needs are less complex, but still very real. Business is business.”

The bank, which will announce its first-quarter results on Friday, racked up losses of nearly £2 billion last year as conduct, restructuring and litigation costs took their toll. Within that, commercial banking increased its lending by £1.4bn on the previous year, with promises to further “ramp up our support for enterprise” in 2016.

RBS is already the UK’s biggest business lender, with a quarter of all firms among its customers. Rose is targeting companies with revenues of £2 million up to the largest members of the FTSE 100, and in an attempt to support growth at the lower end, she has instructed her senior managers to meet at least two or three bosses of small businesses per week.

The campaign to bring customers into the heart of the bank has furthermore led to a radical overhaul of the notorious executive wing at its Gogarburn headquarters in Edinburgh, where the walls were knocked down earlier this year to make way for a hub of innovation.

The wing reopened in February as one of the growing network of business accelerators run by Entrepreneurial Spark (ESpark), the business “hatchery” that supports start-up firms. It operates alongside other organisations such as Entrepreneurial Scotland, Business Gateway, Napier University, Scottish Edge and The Princes Trust Scotland.

“There was a big symbolic element in knocking down the old executive wing and bringing in the business community,” says Rose, who admits she shunned the inner sanctum during visits to Edinburgh in previous years.

“When I used to come up to Gogar­burn, I never really spent much time in the executive wing,” she says. “It was too quiet, and I like sitting with my team.”

It is one of nine ESpark centres now housed within RBS facilities throughout the UK, with a further four to be added by the end of this year. The arrangement is the highest-profile example of a variety of initiatives whereby the bank is making excess space across its estate available to entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Rose – who travels extensively from her base in London to meet customers throughout the regions – admits there are selfish motivations in the campaign to open up RBS facilities to the wider community. Providing this kind of “wrap-around” care is good publicity, but also allows her bankers to become immersed in the needs of their clients.

“We are constantly looking at how we can make our business work in the way that will best serve our customers,” she adds.

That includes dedicated support for female entrepreneurs. RBS has 300 managers in its Women in Business (WiB) programme, which has helped more than 10,000 women since it was set up three years ago. Among many other targets, Rose is aiming to raise the number of WiB managers to 500 by the end of this year.

She points to the deficit of female entrepreneurs in Scotland, where only 20 per cent of enterprises are majority-owned by women. Through its partnership with ESpark, RBS is pushing for an even gender split in start-up activity, which could generate an extra £6bn for the economy by 2030.

Speaking last week at a WiB conference in Edinburgh, Rose further underscored this commitment: “I want RBS to be the bank that women come to because they know we will support them to set up their business,” she said.

Although an advocate of equality and diversity, Rose is among those senior businesswomen who do not support quotas in the boardroom. It is a blunt tool, she says, though she does favour “aspirational” targets.

Meeting those goals calls for an overhaul of the professional pipeline that delivers women to the door of the executive suite, but there is no magic cure. It requires effort on multiple fronts, which can make the pace of change dishearteningly slow.

“I was gender-blind for a huge part of my career, and then all of the sudden I looked around and thought ‘where have all the women gone?’” says Rose.

“The frustration is that it is not moving fast enough. You don’t want to be here having the same conversation in five years’ time.”

Meanwhile, there are still tough decisions on the horizon as the quest continues to overturn eight consecutive years of losses at RBS, whose tally is some £50bn in the red over that period.

RBS sold Coutts International, the overseas arm of the private bank, in March of last year. But the British part of the business, which counts Queen Elizabeth II among its clients, is expensive to run and ripe for cost-cutting under new head of private banking Peter Flavel.

Flavel – who also has responsibility for Adam & Co, RBS’s Scottish private bank – was appointed in February, just days before RBS confirmed that its commercial banking division will shed 200 staff in a reshuffle to further streamline operations. The commercial division handles about 12,000 of RBS’s biggest business customers with loans of £250,000 or more, many of whom are being shifted to the business banking arm, which used to handle smaller borrowing.

Not surprisingly, Rose refuses to be drawn on the scope of further restructuring, saying that staff will be the first to know if more cuts are imminent.

Legacy issues continue to linger at RBS, which remains 73 per cent owned by the Treasury. However, Rose says the bank is getting close to drawing a line under past sins such as the various mis-selling scandals, and accusations that RBS pushed clients into bankruptcy during the grip of the recession.

“Do I think the bank today is an incredibly different bank to what it was pre-crisis? Absolutely, without a doubt,” she says.

Her faith in the bank’s ability to revive its fortunes goes some way towards explaining why she is still there, even though headhunters have come calling on more than one occasion in the past. Rebuilding relationships “customer by customer” is a tedious business, but one which she seems certain will ultimately restore RBS’s reputation as a trusted institution.

“The reason I am here is because I really believe in what I am doing, and I am really committed to what we can achieve,” she says. “Everyone is really focused on making this work.”