When he was aged about five, Craig Donaldson saw a new ship, built at one of the Sunderland shipyards, launched on the River Wear. It was one of the formative experiences of his young life. He felt similar emotions when Metro Bank launched in London, on Southampton Row, on 29 July 29 2010. “We opened the doors at 7.30am and the last customer left at 10pm. Then I took everyone to the Princess Louise across the street.”
Unlike just about every other bank, Metro Bank is still opening “stores”. There are now 58 of them, heading – it is hoped – for a grand total of more like 200-250 for national coverage. I have to say “stores” because they don’t like the word “branches”. I get that. You’re not climbing a tree, why should you be clinging to branches? The point about calling it a store is it’s all about “fulfilment”. “Our job is to create fans,” says Donaldson, “not customers.”
Craig Donaldson, CEO of Metro Bank, is now 46. There were two big turning points in his life. One was getting a scholarship to a grammar school in Newcastle, taking him away from his village between Sunderland and Durham with the pit at the bottom of the hill. “It changed my outlook – my expectations. When I was growing up everyone worked in the mines or the shipyards. It’s not that long ago, but it’s all changed.”
The other was the financial crisis 10 years ago. Back in 2008, bankers may or may not have been jumping out of windows, but plenty of people wanted to push them out. They were the bad guys. Donaldson had a good job at Barclays, with a regular salary. He could have stuck with it. But he chose to jump ship and joined Metro when it was still a blank sheet of paper and he was one of just four people. Technically, their first employee. “You don’t often get a chance to do that. I wanted to do something I could feel proud of. I wanted to build something you could see, something tangible, something I could believe in – that’s why I came here.”
And he still is proud of it. “You might be in Dubai, you might be in San Francisco,” he says. “You can still call us.” On a less glamorous note, he points out that “if you leave your debit card behind the bar”, you can get a new one printed out in a store any time. Metro Bank is open 24/7, physical stores from 8 to 8 on weekdays, and still open on the weekends. Sunday is their busiest day for business customers.
Donaldson was due to go and watch his son play rugby on Saturday morning. But what about his staff? “Some people choose to work the night shift,” he says. “We’re not a legacy organisation. When you join us we are very clear on the expectations. But we try to make shifts work for people and people’s needs.”
“Transparency” is not just a word at Metro Bank. Their buildings have glass, floor to ceiling. From the street outside you can actually look in and see what’s going on. What you see is what you get. It reminds you that other banks have an unfortunate habit of looking like betting shops or dens of iniquity.
The day I went into Metro, RBS and Barclays were both having IT crises, with systems crashing and thousands of customers fuming, unable to access their cash. Not Metro. “We hope for the best and plan for the worst,” says Donaldson. His experience definitely gives him an edge. Not only can he actually do the coding, having started work in telecoms for BT, but he went on to work in the aerospace industry. “It’s similar,” he says. “We have a run-book. It’s like a plane crashing, virtually.
“We work on worst-case scenarios. If you’ve worked out what can go wrong, you stand a good chance of preventing it from happening. Or at least minimise impact if it does.”
One of their buildings houses a so-called “Flight Control”. “It’s like standing on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. Except you’re watching transactions, money flowing in and out, rather than stars.”
You’re probably not going to use the adjective “stuffy” where Metro Bank is concerned. It has an element of fun – and bright primary colours – that you don’t often find in banks. There is a “magic money machine”. “My kids love it,” says Donaldson. I admit I was rather drawn to it myself. I came across a supply of free dog biscuits and a large plastic Metro Man mascot in the lobby. “It’s amazing how many people like dressing up as Metro Man,” says Donaldson.
They have emissaries going into school to teach 7-year-olds about saving and spending and then bringing youngsters back into the bank for the final class. Cynics may see a shrewd business sense at work here, but Donaldson says, “It’s great when you hear the kids singing and shouting in the banking hall.”
He is wearing not just the usual suit and tie, but chunky red “M” cufflinks. He didn’t have to. But he’s an enthusiast. He still has the passion. “I’m not thinking about the next job, we’re still only in the foothills.” This week, Metro Bank is opening a new store in Bristol, then Bath the week after, with Cardiff in the pipeline. “We have to keep on radiating out,” says Donaldson. “I’ve promised my dad we’re going to get a store in Sunderland.”