Sunday 18 November 2018

Breaking into houses

A soft-spoken mother of three is leading the Bank of Scotland's charge into our mortgage market, writes Margaret DoyleSUSAN Rice is an unlikely revolutionary. But that's precisely the effect that the soft-spoken 51-year-old mother-of-three has had on the Irish mortgage market. Financial players have been full of apocalyptic prognoses for the sector since Bank of Scotland where she heads up personal banking moved into the market with cut-price mortgages three weeks ago.

You get the impression that Rice is somewhat bemused by the brouhaha. After all, she points out, Bank of Scotland has already introduced a number of innovations into Britain's savings and loan market without a fraction of the fuss. Under chief executive Peter Burt, the bank was one of the first to set up a direct arm, run from a call centre in Edinburgh. It is an aggressive player in the mortgage market, and invented the ``equity release'' mortgage, allowing homeowners to take an income stream from their homes. It is the bank behind Sainsbury's supermarket bank (it owns a half share), which caused panic among the traditional clearers by offering generous savings rates. And it was the first bank in the UK to offer computer-based banking.

However, Rice was reckoning without the small size of the Irish banking market, the dominance of the major players, and the effect that soaring house prices have had on the public. In her mind, the bank took a simple decision. They looked at margins in Ireland and saw a huge opportunity.

In her American way, Rice sees it as being all about ``offering a good deal to the customer''.

If Susan Rice is an unlikely revolutionary, she's just as unusual a banker. As Susan Wunsch (her Rhode Island family originally hailed from Austria), she read biology and philosophy of science at Wellesley, the upscale all-women's college in western Massachusetts. She graduated in 1967, within a year of Hillary Rodham, whom she remembers only vaguely despite Rodham having given the valedictory speech for her year. On a Harvard cousin's advice, Rice chose an all-women's college over Radcliffe, Harvard's sister college. Something of her serious nature can be inferred from her views on all-women education: ``It was a very good place. It was without distraction when you were in the class, and there was a willingness to develop your own thoughts, your own intellect and views.'' She graduated with sigma psi scientific honours.

One of the downsides of single-sex education did not trouble Rice too much. She met her husband Duncan, a Scottish historian, while at Wellesley, while he was doing a year's study at Harvard. They married just after Susan graduated and returned to Scotland together. She did an MLitt on the philosophy of science at Aberdeen (graduating in 1969), while her husband lectured at the university.

The Rices then returned to America to Yale, in Newhaven, Connecticut. Rice worked in medical research for a few years but packed it in. ``I didn't want to spend my days in a lab,'' she recalls. ``I had more of an interest in interacting with people.'' Instead, she moved into administration and spent 10 years at Yale as Dean of Saybrook College.

In 1981, the Rices moved to upstate New York. Rice worked for five years as Dean of Students at Colgate University. It was only in 1986, at the age of 38, that Rice, with two young sons in tow, moved to Manhattan and became a banker. She's the first to admit that her career progression hasn't been conventional.

Coincidentally, her first job was with NatWest Bancorp, the US arm of the British bank coincidentally, because at the time the Rices had no intention of returning to Scotland. However, all that changed in 1996 when Duncan was offered the job of Vice Chancellor (the top executive post) at the University of Aberdeen. The family, which by now had a six-year-old daughter, moved back to Aberdeen.

Rice intended to take a few months off before deciding on what to do. She had talked to a very accommodating NatWest, but their business was too far away (in London). However, she received a call from Gavin Masterton, the treasurer of Bank of Scotland and joined the bank at the beginning of 1997. Rice's first project was to look at how the bank dealt with late payers. The bank decided to try to attract business from other companies and what was a cost-centre became a separate business.

Her next job was to examine the bank's global custody and trustee business (this basically involves holding other people's financial assets in safe-keeping for them). She then negotiated the sale of both businesses. In February last year she got a big promotion to a job looking after branch banking, which included all the retail banking in Scotland. Less than a year later she was promoted again, to her current job, one of four managing directors of personal banking. Rice's particular responsibility is to oversee all retail products and services.

Rice has balanced this rapid rise through the new world of Scottish banking while sharing the job of bringing up three children and commuting from the family's Aberdeen home to her Edinburgh flat, 130 miles away. ``I've had to train myself with very little sleep,'' she remarks wryly. ``You don't get much time to yourself or to relax.''

She survives, she says, by establishing rules and a routine. ``Weekends, my husband and I just guard. But I've always worked. If you say to your kids: `This is the family situation', they all pitch in.''

Despite the stress, Rice loves her work. The next decision for the bank is whether to launch more services in Ireland. At the moment, her response is to wait and see. She's wonderfully diplomatic about the Irish set-up: ``I wouldn't sit here and say there's a cartel,'' she says sincerely. ``I don't know that for sure. The press has been writing about that.'' One thing she is clear on: the bank sees no need to offer a full range of services. Its strategy is to see where the best opportunities are and go for them otherwise known as cherry-picking. The men in Ballsbridge and Baggot St shouldn't relax yet.

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business