The lender, owned by state-backed Lloyds Banking Group, last week officially opened its third Scottish branch, with the Edinburgh site joining others in Aberdeen and Glasgow, and Nicholson told Scotland on Sunday that more could be in the pipeline.
Halifax merged with Bank of Scotland in 2001 to create HBOS, which was taken over by Lloyds in 2009. That deal saw the former building society’s name disappear from Scotland’s high streets, but Lloyds chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio announced last year that the brand would be making a surprise comeback.
Speaking as a bagpiper greeted visitors to the Princes Street branch, previously occupied by fashion chain Gap, Nicholson said: “A physical presence is vital. Counter transactions are falling by about 11 per cent a year, but self-service transactions are growing.”
Rival Royal Bank of Scotland, which was also bailed out by taxpayers at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, unveiled plans in April to close 44 sites across the UK as the rising popularity of online and mobile banking contributed to a 30 per cent fall in branch transactions since 2011.
RBS chairman Sir Philip Hampton told shareholders at the group’s annual meeting in June that further branch closures were “inevitable”, while chief executive Ross McEwan said: “The truth is that some branches hardly see a customer, which is why we’re taking tough decisions about closing, and sometimes making redundancies – although that is always a last resort.”
However, Nicholson said Halifax, which had 60 branches north of the Border before its tie-up with Bank of Scotland, is keen to expand to challenge the likes of Clydesdale and RBS on their home turf.
He added: “There are 17 major conurbations in Scotland that we’re definitely interested in, so we’ll consider what Edinburgh and Glasgow are like and then we’ll look at how feasible they might be. Our focus is on serving Scottish people well and offering a genuine alternative to the big players.”
As well as taking on fellow Lloyds-owned lender Bank of Scotland, Halifax will be competing against TSB, which was spun off by the group in June and has 189 Scottish branches.
Prior to Lloyds selling a 38.5 per cent stake in the bank, TSB warned that it could face higher costs in the wake of a Yes vote next month, and said “the outcome of the referendum could contribute to prolonged uncertainty around certain aspects of the Scottish economy”.
However, Nicholson said the results of the vote would be “manageable” for Halifax, adding: “People will decide what they decide, and then we will deal with the outcomes. We’ll just focus on making sure we set up the business in the right way whatever the outcomes.”