HQ for giant of banking, or a bridge too far?

IT IS perhaps appropriate that visitors arriving in Edinburgh from the west are greeted with the arching bridge marking the Royal Bank of Scotland’s new headquarters at Gogarburn. The bank is such a cornerstone of the city’s economy that some wags suggest the bridge should bear a slogan reflecting this: "Welcome To Fredinburgh" perhaps, in homage to the bank’s chief executive, Fred Goodwin.

He was hugely instrumental in drawing up the 350 million plans for Gogarburn and took a keen interest in the tiniest of details. The bank’s new HQ will open six months early and within budget on 1 July, a date that signifies another step change in the Royal’s bid for world domination.

Initially, 300 employees will move to the site - one million square metres of office space set in 100 acres of landscaped woodland - increasing to 3,250 by September. And unlike the staff of other companies, the Gogarburn workforce will not have to pop out for a sandwich at lunchtime or dash in and out of the office to beat the traffic to collect a child from nursery.

Facilities provided on the site include a supermarket, chemist and florist, along with a 480-seat terrace restaurant and facilities for barbecues. There are running and cycling tracks, football pitches and a leisure centre with a swimming pool, gym, and dance and aerobics studios.

Former stables are being turned into a crche for up to 120 pre-school children and, amid the jogging paths and woodland is a training and conference centre with a 300-seat auditorium.

Some have said that the site, conceived as a "lifestyle headquarters", takes corporate culture too far. They argue it invokes the spectre of Margaret Atwood’s apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake, in which giant companies house investments and employees in high-security social micro-units as the world outside collapses. Others say the world’s fifth largest bank should not have a new HQ in Edinburgh, arguing this represents both a lack of ambition and a rash gamble on the success of the local economy.

All charges are rejected outright by Mark Fisher, the man entrusted with moving the Royal Bank to Gogarburn. "We’ve managed very well since 1727 and being based in Scotland has never been a problem," says Mr Fisher, chief executive of the Royal Bank’s manufacturing division. "There is absolutely no rational reason why RBS can’t continue to flourish from Scotland.

"There has been speculation saying we should have moved to London. I don’t agree. We have a significant presence in London, but we are a Scottish company, have been based in Scotland up until now and will remain based in Scotland."

The move does mean the end of an era for 42 St Andrew Square, the Royal Bank’s elegant headquarters for 180 years, which will be renovated as a "superbranch" for the city centre. The bank will also continue to use bases at The Gyle and Fettes Row, although 20 other locations in the city will be "sold or developed" over the next few years as most Edinburgh staff go west to Gogar.

Mr Fisher admits the decision to go for a large corporate site was partly to embody what Royal Bank has come to stand for in the realm of global financial services - and where it is going. "The culture of RBS is summed up in our strapline - ‘make it happen’. That’s what Gogarburn is about," Mr Fisher says. "The building is aimed at fostering communication, enabling decisions to be made rapidly. It’s an embodiment of how the organisation tries to be - professional, not over-the-top."

So what does Gogarburn say about the Royal Bank? According to Mr Fisher, two things - ambition and dedication to people. "The key to this whole project - the underlying philosophy - is that it’s not about property but people. You can talk about land and location, but whatever we were going to do, it always came back to people."

During the planning and construction process, employees were continually consulted about what they wanted - through opinion polls, focus groups and internet forums.

Fisher says Royal Bank wants to be the employer of choice and it all comes down to a simple calculation: "If we want to attract the best people, we have to give them the very best environment to work in.

"It is an area which will be used to work, do business and make decisions. We want employees to be as productive as possible, and to achieve that we have to give them the most appropriate environment we can."

One City-based banking analyst says it would be easy to be cynical about the culture embodied by Gogarburn, but says: "The corporate-style campus approach is the clearest possible sign that Royal Bank isn’t just paying lip service to its people strategy. It has put its money where its mouth is."

And Professor Cary Cooper, a psychologist, also backs the rationale behind the decision. He says: "I don’t believe a company would create a corporate campus just so employees spend longer on site. The benefits would be marginal.

"Corporate campuses work because they represent a clean slate - transforming different factions and departments into a new whole. The psychological culture is different. That can re-energise a successful company. Corporate campuses are about making the workplace associated with nice things - fitness, play, socialising - as much as bad things like stress and deadlines."

Mr Fisher insists the move to an edge-of-town site was effectively unavoidable. He says: "RBS has grown so rapidly that the scale of what we needed took time to get to grips with. In fact, looking back, our first option - at the site of the St James’s centre in Edinburgh - was not only going to be too difficult to complete, but simply too small for our purposes."

So it had to be Gogarburn - but even when its glittering new corporate HQ opens, the Royal Bank will still have business to do.

After its incredible growth in recent years, how much more can it grow? How far can its tentacles reach?

Given its size, the Royal would be barred by banking regulations on competition from making a major acquisition in the UK.

Mr Goodwin’s strategy for Europe is based on targeted niche acquisitions and he has also been cool towards the idea of any major deal in the Far East - despite reports the bank is now looking at a 2 billion holding in Bank of China.

In the United States, the strategy is likely to be more of the same - picking off targets in a steady manner. Despite a number of major deals, the US takeovers are well short of the takeover of NatWest in 2000 terms of both price paid and cost-saving benefits; even five years on, NatWest looks to have been an opportunity that comes along only once in most bankers’ lifetimes and it is unlikely to be repeated.

Some City analysts believe Royal Bank shares are trading slightly lower on the stock market than they might, because people are scared the company will come unstuck trying to replicate the NatWest deal abroad.

But James Eden, at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, believes the fears are overdone: "The growth is never going to be as dramatic as the period including NatWest because for that Goodwin would have to buy Citigroup [the world’s biggest bank] and that’s not going to happen. Its track record on acquisitions has been very good, so why should there be excessive concern?"

Why indeed? As staff contemplate the move to Gogarburn, they may not know what is coming next but can reflect on one incontrovertible fact; the Royal hasn’t done too badly for a bank that was almost broke in 1992.

• Additional reporting by Martin Flanagan.

HOW BIG NUMBERS ADD UP TO BIG PROFITS, BIG BONUSES - AND BIG TAX BILLS

• The Royal Bank’s most recent profits of 8.1 billion (257 per second) were nearly double what it made in 2000 - one of the fastest growths of any bank.

• 19,000 Scots workers got an average 2,100 bonus in February when the bank announced its record profits. It was part of a salary bonus of 10 per cent for its 100,000 worldwide employees.

• RBS is worth more than Coca-Cola, based on market capitalisation.

• It handles more than 18 cash withdrawals around the world every second, worth 1,104.82, and 1,096 withdrawals every minute, worth 66,829.

• It is the seventh-largest employer in the FTSE 100, with more than 100,000 staff worldwide.

• It is the second-biggest private sector employer in Scotland, behind Tesco, with 19,021 staff - larger than the whole of the oil/gas industry.

• It is the fifth-biggest bank in the world and the second-biggest in Europe.

• Every minute, it pays 5,783 in salaries, 904 in pensions and 4,186 in tax.

• This is the seventh successive year of profit growth greater than 10 per cent. More than 30 per cent of its profits are made overseas.

• Less than 1 in every 10 of the bank’s UK income comes from personal loans.

• RBS created 4,500 new jobs in 2004, including 1,100 jobs in branches.

• RBS invented the overdraft, in 1728, allowing a merchant, William Hogg, to take out of his account 1,000 (worth 63,664 today) more than he had in it.

• RBS is one of three banks to issue its own notes; since 1987 these have featured Scottish castles in the following denominations: 100, Balmoral; 20, Brodick; 10, Glamis; 5, Culzean; 1, Edinburgh.

• Contrary to popular belief, Scottish notes have no status as legal tender in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. However, as they are not listed as illegal currency, they should therefore be acceptable to traders.

ALASTAIR JAMIESON