The Big Interview: Duncan Gourlay of Weatherbys Private Bank

'˜Somebody said to me once that a good private banker always tends to place himself between the institution and the client, and I think that is true,' asserts Duncan Gourlay, associate director at Weatherbys Private Bank in Scotland. 'You've very much got to put yourself in the client's shoes in a lot of circumstances, so that's probably good advice.'

Duncan Gourlay, associate director of Weatherbys Private Bank, says 'theres definitely a demand for the type of service that we are providing'. Photograph: Julie Bull

Gourlay, who joined the lender in 2013, notes that it is one of only two family-owned private banks in the UK and part of the Weatherbys brand, best-known for its activity in horseracing. The group’s roots date back to 1770 as the sport became organised and regulated, when Northumbrian lawyer James Weatherby found himself at its centre on his appointment as secretary to the fledgling Jockey Club.

Today the firm is headed by the seventh generation of the family, with Johnny Weatherby chairman of the group and his brother Roger Weatherby chief executive of Weatherbys bank. The company’s heritage is a key selling point, Gourlay point out. “Clients do get that sense that they’re almost treated as part of the family, so that’s very different from a lot of the other providers.”

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While drawing on its centuries-old legacy, the lender also has some advantages over its rivals by being a relatively new player in the market, having obtained its banking licence in 1994.

The private bank arm launched in 2006, open to individuals with a net worth of more than £3 million or an annual income in excess of £300,000.

Gourlay leads this part of the business in Scotland. The bank opened an office in Edinburgh a year ago amid what he says is a burgeoning demand for its services north of the Border.

“Having started from a relatively small base, we very quickly found we were requiring to get somewhere of our own and allow us to recruit more staff, and actually have a good solid base for clients to come in and visit us as well,” he says.

The workforce at the office in Rutland Square is soon set to number four with the appointment of another senior executive, with the team covering the whole of Scotland.

Such a geographic reach inevitably involves wealth from a broad range of sources, with a diverse client base covering all walks of life and ages. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the mix of clients that have come along,” he says.

This encompasses everything from entrepreneurs to traditional land-owning clients, and Gourlay sees the latter sector, encompassing estates or other rural property, as being of particular interest, as they have often been overlooked by some other providers for not being a “fashionable” sector to target.

“But actually, from our perspective it’s quite good business and we see there being strong potential there,” he says, as there is more innovation in the rural community than might be expected.

“Certainly, in terms of our client base, there’s the younger generation that have really stepped up, getting involved in the running of estates.”

They have, he says, broadened their income streams with ventures including distilleries and farm shops – according to figures from the Scottish Government farms that diversified boosted their income by an average of £15,000 a year – and in many other cases people have returned to run the family business after working in financial services or property.

Gourlay says: “There’s so much more going on now and for a bank like us that’s a great opportunity to get involved and play a part in that.”

Another opportunity he sees for Weatherbys in Scotland is the depreciation in sterling’s value since the Brexit vote, with overseas interest in investment north of the Border coming immediately after 23 June.

Potential investors with a long-standing interest in Scotland saw an opportunity to move from theory to action with what was “effectively a 10 per cent discount on asset purchase”, he says.

Turning to potential political upheaval in Scotland, as is the case for many business leaders he both holds and sees a business-as-usual attitude. “UK-wide, Scotland continues to be of interest to people buying up land, buying up property … I think that will continue.”

Gourlay has spent the majority of his career in Scotland, starting out in banking when it very much followed the traditional branch model.

Growing up in Falkirk, after leaving school he had secured a place at university to study business, but in the interim took up a position with Bank of Scotland, starting in 1989. He completed a degree in financial services in Napier University while working for the lender.

Realising that he really took to the work, he also believes that his timing was fortuitous. “If you got in, you worked hard, you did your banking qualifications, you were getting the double benefit of professional qualifications plus on-the-job experience, so it was a great time to get involved,” he says. If he had started work in the recessionary times of the early 1990s, he concedes, the same opportunities mightn’t have been there.

His move into private banking came about due to his interest in its client focus. “The ability to spend time with clients and developing a relationship is something I very much enjoyed. I don’t think there’s any better sector within banking than private banking to enable you to do that.”

He says that in the case of Weatherbys, “a lot of the time we’re out and about seeing clients, which is a huge difference from a lot of the competitors out there. You generally get a much greater picture if you go out to see somebody and understand what’s important to them.”

Gourlay joined Weatherbys after nearly four years at Barclays Wealth, where he was vice-president, working in the private banking team in Glasgow, and before that was associate director at Adam and Co, where he spent five years.

Being a good listener is, he says, hugely important in private banking. “You’ve got to be able to interpret and understand what’s important to the client and what their long-term objectives and provide good advice.”

In moving to Weatherbys, Gourlay explains, he not only got the chance to come in work for a family company, but also the “hugely appealing” opportunity to effectively start a business from scratch in Scotland.

He adds: “We’re not here for the next couple of years – we’re here hopefully for the next 100 years.”

As for where challenges lie for the business, he flags regulation, with tougher demands in this area singled out as a challenge by PwC in a recent overview of private banking and wealth management. This pointed out that in the sector there is a move towards better client service and delivering real added value, and said: “New competitors are challenging the dominance of established firms … those who can master change will be in a position to lead the industry and we believe that clear industry leaders and losers will emerge by the middle of this decade.”

Weatherbys’ “very traditional banking model” certainly seems to be proving a draw as consumer sentiment moves away from larger corporates and towards operators prioritising customer service.

“For us, we take in deposits, we lend out some of those deposits and we look after everything in between, so that in itself is not particularly complex, but you have to provide a good service in doing all of that and provide answers to any queries,” Gourlay says.

The bank typically holds about £500m of deposits and lends out about £270m, he notes, “so it’s a very conservative balance sheet that we have and that’s important to our clients”.

“It’s an exciting time to try and grow the business here – that’s key for us. From our perspective, we’re about steady growth and trying to build up the client base. There’s definitely a demand for the kind of service we’re providing.”