Ulster Bank profits rise again as bad-debt period comes to an end

Ulster Bank saw its profits rise again in 2017
Gary McDonald Business Editor

ULSTER Bank's profit before tax in 2017, at £59 million, was just £1 million up on the previous year.

And while that's peanuts in big banking terms, it still thrilled bosses.

Because it signals what they believe is a return to normality and an indication that most of the hangover debt from the property collapse has been washed through.

Write backs in impairment charges came down from £27m the previous 12-month period to just £6 million last year, which Richard Donnan, who heads up Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland, believes is "highly significant".

"We're back to pre-crash impairment levels, and although the headline figure of a £59 million profit versus £58 million profit might not sound much, it marks a key improvement and underlines that our growth is sustainable.

The bank's total income was up just around one per cent from £176m to £184m, while Ulster also took a hefty chunk out of its operating costs, which fell from £145m to £131m.

Mr Donnan says: “These results show the way in which we have been changing and improving our organisation to become a simpler, safer and more customer focussed bank. We are a leading supporter of business and personal customers across Northern Ireland.

“Our business in Northern Ireland continues to show a strong performance, with a profit driven by positive underlying performance across all areas of our business and those significantly reduced impairment writebacks.

"Lending drawdowns by small businesses were up 29 per cent in the year, we started 40,000 new personal banking relationships and we have retained the largest share of the personal and business current account market in Northern Ireland."

He added: “While the broader economic climate may contain uncertainty, we believe we have robust policies in place to finance good deals and play a leading part in local growth, having financed significant investments in hospitality, healthcare and food manufacturing – increasing new lending to large businesses by 15 per cent and growing that book by 6 per cent."

Ulster Bank, which has been a part of the fabric of Northern Ireland since 1836, employs 2,000 staff locally, and by May will have a slimmed-down branch network of just 44 (it was 64 this time last year).

It's parent firm Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which itself swung out of the red for the first time in a decade, revealed that it has set aside £2.5 billion of restructuring costs for this year and next.

Mr Donnan would not be drawn on that this might mean for future bank branch closures and insisted there will be a major focus on further digitalisation.

“Customers continue to change the way they bank with us. Our focus on cost is an important part of our ability to reinvest in the development of our people and digital services that make it simpler and easier for customer to bank with us," he said.

"Our digitally active customer base grew by 21 per cent year on year, and we are continuing to respond to that change by introducing community bankers, business growth enablers, dedicated tech experts in our branches and 17 stops for our Bank on Wheels.

"Our ambition remains the same - we want to be the number one bank for customer service, trust and advocacy for all business and personal customers - for the entrepreneur, homeowner, farmer and business owner."

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