Santander turned 'Shabby Abbey' into a success

Abbey was transformed by the Spanish bank group – with the help of the credit crunch

Spool back to February 2003 and Abbey National, as it was then called, couldn't seem to do anything right. Dubbed "Shabby Abbey" (or "Shabby National"), it was in the doghouse with many of its customers over its cost-cutting plans, which included forcing pensioners to give up their passbooks and switch to ATM-based accounts, and increasing cheque clearing times.

It was firmly out of favour in the City, too, after reporting a near £1bn loss following an ill-fated expansion into risky financial investments – it lost millions on the likes of Enron and WorldCom.

The bank's bosses pledged to focus single-mindedly on traditional high-street banking – and to be fair, things started moving pretty quickly. There was a rapid U-turn on the plans to phase out passbooks, more staff were put into branches, and it started punching its weight in the mortgage market, clawing market share back off its rival Halifax.

Within months the bank had also changed its name on the high street (losing the "National"), dropped its umbrella logo and relaunched key products such as current accounts. Suspicions that the management were priming it for a sale were confirmed for some people when, in July 2004, Abbey announced it had agreed to be taken over by Banco Santander Central Hispano, Spain's biggest bank.

Abbey's new owners' efforts at turning the bank around started bearing fruit, though seemingly at the expense of customer service, with the personal finance sections of newspapers highlighting a growing number of gripes about issues ranging from cash Isa transfer delays to problems in the bank's probate and bereavement department.

"Just what is going on at Abbey? Why are so many people complaining about its service?" wrote the Observer's money agony aunt, Margaret Dibben, in November 2007. She reported receiving nearly twice as many letters about Abbey as any other banking group. It regularly scored very badly in customer satisfaction surveys. Some wondered whether the takeover by Santander had created the crisis – perhaps it was down to a cultural mismatch?

But then came the credit crunch,dealing a knockout blow to several UK banks but leaving Santander relatively unscathed. Abbey was able to capitalise on the woes of rivals. Suddenly, it became seen as a "safe haven" forpeople's savings, and while others pulled out of mortgage lending, Abbey sharply increased its share of the market. The Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton also worked his magic, with his high-profile ads helping to pull in the punters. Service also improved, although only moderately.

All these factors no doubt contributed to the announcement last May that the names of Abbey, and those of Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley (also swallowed by the Spanish institution), are to disappear by the end of this year in favour of the Santander brand.

This could mean that in locations where there is currently an Abbey, A&L and B&B branch, there will be three Santanders. Apparently this isn't unusual in Spain.


Rupert Jones

The GuardianTramp

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