LONDON — The head of business banking at High Street lender Natwest says more small businesses are asking about export opportunities as Brexit looms.
“They want to know how to trade internationally a bit more, those who don’t already,” Marcelino Castrillo, Managing Director for Business and Private Banking at Natwest, told Business Insider.
Boosting British exports is a key part of the government’s post-Brexit economic strategy. Theresa May created the Department for International Trade after becoming Prime Minister and made new trade agreements with nations outside of the European Union one of her 12 key Brexit priorities. International Trade Minister Liam Fox famously said most British businesses were too “lazy and fat” to export,
Castrillo said Natwest has been running workshops across the country to help businesses understand the implications of Brexit for their business and give advice on trading internationally.
“I think there is a role to actually help small businesses through the practicalities of what trading internationally implies. We need to find role models in the communities who are willing to spend time with those businesses and really facilitate that practical experience as to how you do it.
“We have a lot of connections with bigger companies internationally that can help the smaller companies with the practicalities of how to do it and do it without running much risk.”
Castrillo says last June’s vote to leave the EU led to a “dip” in new business accounts being opened at the bank but only for about two or three weeks.
“We’re now back to the same level or even higher than where we were before,” Castrillo says. “To some extent, yes [Brexit is] a topic of discussion and people want to know about it and we’re running quite a lot of events on what is Brexit across the country. But I wouldn’t say it’s top of mind. They’d like more clarity, as we all would, but I don’t think it’s really worrying them at this point in time. “
‘We’re a UK bank, we’ll continue to be a UK bank’
Multiple investment banks have warned that they may have to move jobs out of Britain in the event of a “hard Brexit,” where companies lose the right to sell services across the EU from Britain at a unified tariff cost. But Castrillo says that Brexit is unlikely to have much effect on Natwest, which is a domestic retail bank and does not deal with any investment banking activity.
“To some extent, it doesn’t really matter,” he says. “We’re a UK bank, we’ll continue to be a UK bank. Whatever shape or form Brexit takes, we’ll just deal with it. There’s not a lot you can do. I don’t think it’s something we’re spending a massive amount of time on. Other banks are looking at whether they have to move jobs across to Europe or not — that’s not an issue for us.”
Natwest is owned by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), a bank whose treatment of small business customers has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons recently. RBS has been dogged by accusations of wrongdoing at its small business restructuring unit, GRG, which helped businesses in distress.
The bank agreed to November to refund £400 million to SMEs that went through the process, after the regulator found it guilty of “systematic” mistreatment of distressed small businesses that came to it for help, but cleared it of the most serious allegations.
Castrillo says the scandal’s recent reemergence in the press has not damaged Natwest’s reputation among small businesses. He says: “From our customers, we didn’t really see any reaction.”
He added: “We were quite decisive to acknowledge that, with hindsight, there were some things we regretted having done, in terms of perhaps not giving enough guidance to business with regards to why they were going to GRG and some of the complex fee structures, which we have agreed to refund our customers. But the initial allegation wasn’t actually supported by the investigation.
“We didn’t really see any issue with our small business customers. What they really see is the day-to-day value and willingness to lend. That was the old bank, as opposed to the new bank. From our side, I think it is [over].”
As well as helping small businesses through the Brexit process, the bank is also helping to win over companies by offering them additional tech services. The bank recently signed a deal with FreeAgent, an accounting software system for sole traders or very small businesses, and has invested in Nift, a startup that helps people cut through the jargon in their contracts.
Castrillo says: “Digital is a big priority for us. Last year we rolled out our fully digital account opening process. It’s gone really well. There’s quite a few things on the lending front we’ll be pushing forward and also push the partnerships with things like Open Banking and really get ahead in terms of open banking.”