Comment: More bad luck for McEwan and RBS

I DON’t know whether Ross McEwan, the New Zealander who is the new boss of Royal Bank of Scotland, has ever visited China. But I’m beginning to wonder whether an oriental shaman has ever wished him “to live in interesting times”.

Martin Flanagan. Picture: Adrian Lourie

Since McEwan took over from Stephen Hester a few months ago, he has had an independent report from Sir Andrew Large branding RBS as poor at lending to small businesses. Big, but not perfectly formed.

A separate report under the aegis of the department for business claims the bank has sent scores of basically viable small businesses to the wall through calling in loans precipitately. That has prompted a second independent inquiry into the allegations by City law firm Clifford Chance.

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Then, this week, we have had Cyber Monday when RBS and its NatWest subsidiary customers suffered a major IT failure that meant they could not get their money.

RBS is set to make major losses again this year from the government-instigated move to create an internal good bank/toxic bank at the group.

The Libor-fixing and payment protection insurance (PPI) scandals rumble on, meanwhile, with a possible further problem from improper forex markets practices in the banking sector waiting in the wings.

McEwan says the IT meltdown is “unacceptable” (a word the banking industry’s public relations people should have on a computer keyboard save/get key by now), and has been due to a lack of investment in systems by RBS for decades.

I would humbly suggest if even the shadow of a black cat looms to cross his path, the new man legs it to the other side of the street very sharpish.

Pub chains find a tasty alternative to drink

GREENE King is the latest pubs company thanking its food offering for contributing to resilience amid the continuing consumer caution, following on from the likes of Mitchells & Butlers and JD Wetherspoon. Chief executive Anand Rooney says special offer deals at the group’s pub restaurants including Hungry Horse helped persuade value-conscious shoppers to part with their cash in the interim results to 13 October.

The GK boss also doesn’t think this trend of cheap food deals at pubs is going to go away, with it now becoming an integral part of the standard drinks offer and posing a direct challenge to the pure restaurant industry.

At the other end of the day, Wetherspoon, in particular, is targeting the breakfast offer for busy workers, taking this squarely to the likes of McDonalds, Greggs and the ubiquitous coffee shop industry.

The mood for food is understandable given that the pubs industry has had so little slack elsewhere in the past decade. The smoking ban, cheap alcohol at supermarkets, the minimum wage, higher utility bills, leaping commodities prices, etc have all put the basic drink offer under pressure.

Pub groups like GK have responded by sharpening up their acts at their managed estates, pruning tenancies where they have less operational clout, and putting time, effort and value into food offerings.

Anand says the firm has benefited substantially from what he terms the consumers’ look for value via a now well-established “voucher culture”. Like-for-like sales were up 3.5 per cent.

Further down the high street, the likes of Sainsbury’s and Tesco are going the same route with brand match vouchers and Bogofs (buy one get one frees). We are all bargain hunters now.