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The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
A Life In Banking - Interview with David Keith
by Richard West
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I was born in Toronto, Canada, on the 22nd of June 1936. My parents emigrated in the 1920s, my father went to Toronto, and my mother went to Montreal. They met at a party, got married, and I was the firstborn. My father was from Aghoghill, and my mother from just outside Portadown. We were in Canada until August 1939, we came home for a holiday and we got caught on this side of the Atlantic when Britain declared war on Mr. Hitler, in September, and we never went back.
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I remember my grandparents' house, bi-planes flying overhead, just after the war started. We moved to Omagh when I was about five.
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Omagh was a market town, quite small, we lived initially in the town and then we got a new house on the Hospital Road. Everything was delivered by horse and cart, the milk, the bread, the fish man came on a Friday with a horse and cart. There were very very few cars on the road.
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We had two military bases in Omagh, and we were used to a lot of soldiers, and then when the Americans came, in 1943, the place was swamped with Americans. We used to have a great time as children playing, we made our trenches, and built our foxholes, and shot at the aeroplanes overhead with our wooden guns.
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My father was a sergeant in the Home Guard, and they went out on an exercise just before Christmas to the Duke of Abercorn's estate, the story was they thought they saw a German Paratrooper coming down, and they fired a few shots, but it was one of the Duke of Abercorn's deer they killed. It was a pure coincidence that one of the men in the patrol was a butcher, so he threw it in the back of the lorry, brought it back, and butchered it, and that's how we had venison for Christmas. I told the Duke of Abercorn years ago, he was Chairman of the Bank. He roared with laughter at the thought of this German paratrooper being shot who turned out to be a deer!
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I remember the Blitz in Belfast. I had an aunt who lived in Carnmoney, and we'd come up for our holidays and stay with her twice a year, although I think there was a gap of about a year after the Blitz, my mother was afraid to let us out of the way.
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The commanding officer of the Enniskillins lived about two hundred yards from us, and the German prisoners of war used to come out and work on the garden. I never talked to them, we were a bit afraid of them. People treated them all right. They were wearing uniforms with large diamonds on their jackets and their trousers, but there was never any hassle with them. I think they were glad to be out of the war.
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I got a job as a milk accounting clerk for Nestlé for a year. The farmers would bring their milk in in churns, and the system was that the Department of Agriculture bought it from the farmers, and then they sold it to us. I did that for a year, it was a bit of a dead-end job, because all the managers were English. There were the foremen in the factory that were Irish but it was the English who were running the business. There was a family connection with the Northern Bank, so I was persuaded to go there.
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The managers at Nestlé were very friendly, but you could see that all the white collar positions were for the English. It was mostly girls working in the factory. As a young man you had to be careful walking through where all the girls were, they could quite easily have taken your trousers off you, at that age it would have been quite embarrassing.
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Two uncles were in the Northern Bank, one in Omagh and one in Belfast. My first branch was Claudy in Co. Derry, I started on 25th of June, 1954. I remember that very well. That was my first time away from home permanently. I discovered girls, it was brilliant.
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RW: You started off as a junior in the bank and then you progressed up to cashier?
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I found the bank revolver in the safe one day, and made an enquiry, 'what are we doing with this Webley .45 revolver?' I was told it was the bank protection weapon. I'd always had an interest in weapons, and this was covered in rust, and I got stuff from my father, who was also in the B-Specials, andhe'd a cleaning kit, so I cleaned the weapon up, and it had ammunition in it, and I thought well I'll hold on to this, and if we have a raid then I can do the shooting!
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The bank had a lot of branches in the Republic, about four in Dublin itself. They had quite a bit of business. They used to say the savings in the Republic financed Harland & Wolff's, and Shorts. Big deposits came in from the Republic, because it was the same currency, pound for pound.
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I was transferred there in 1956. Ireland had been independent since 1920, but in the Church of Ireland they still sang the British national anthem, which I thought strange. The minister had two other churches to do, and to make up the numbers, the Oldcastle church had their service first, and a lot of people would get in their cars and go to the other ones. So there was many a time I heard the same sermon three times in three different churches. There was more to do than there would have been in Claudy, the church had a very good badminton club, and table tennis, I played both, that was good. But the Protestant community was quite small.
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There was an IRA problem going on in the North at the time, and I had a colleague in the bank who had a cousin that was shot by the B-Specials at Roslea, he was very bitter. One of my best friends was the Garda, he used to come for lunch in the place that I stayed, and there were a couple of others, they couldn't understand the IRA at all, they accepted me as a Northerner. But this other guy, he was really a Northerner, but he was just born on the southern side of the Border, he was very very bitter.
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I was there for the best part of a year and then I was transferred up to Banbridge. It wasn't really a market town although there was a market yard, it was very much more shops and that was the sort of business we had, a lot of farmers too of course. At that stage I started helping the cashier as well as doing clerking work. The bank was expanding, and we needed two cashiers, so I became a cashier in the bank.
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It was heartbreaking moving from Banbridge to Belfast, my wife and I both cried, because we were country people, I never imagined us being in the city at a city branch.
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I was used to farmers, I always found them easy to deal with, they were down to earth, whereas I felt in the city there were a lot of smart people, who'd wipe your eye very quickly. But it didn't turn out like that, I found people in the city equally as nice, but that was the perception I had. Initially I felt a bit intimidated. But we'd a good staff, and I was only in the branch a very short time when the Troubles broke out, and there were threats that the bank was going to be burned to the ground and all the rest of it.
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The customers were largely Protestant, because it was a Protestant area, but we had Catholic customers who stayed with us, one guy had his business burnt to the ground twice and he still stayed with us. Eventually he moved to Holywood.
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They weren't nice times though. They were difficult from a management position. There was actually one time in one of the branches where the head of the UDA came down and wanted money transferred from an account in my branch to an account up the Shankill Road, they had taken over a social club there, or were trying to, and that was scary because they had the chairman of the social club in with him, he was shaking in his shoes, although he was actually in the UDA himself. We didn't do that, we said there'd have to be a committee meeting, and the local head constable was on the committee. The chap actually showed me his weapon and said 'I could get it out with this', I said well you can't. I said I can't do it without signatures. There's no way this club is going to operate without a resolution from the committee. You know that the head constable across the road is on the committee.
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Virtually all the shops were paying protection to the UDA or the UVF. There was this power struggle going on at the time. It was very difficult for the businesses, they told me what was going on. Everybody was paying protection money. There was a lot of money coming in from England and they were building houses like mad, the Housing Executive, and at the same time they were knocking old flats down. There was a lot of plant and machinery sales. But after six o'clock at night Belfast was dead, nobody went down. That's how the off-licences did such a good trade.
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Then I went to Advances Control. I was in control of a quarter of the bank's branches. Everything beyond the manager's discretion in the branches, came through the controllers. He had discretion up to a high level himself, if it was above that, it had to go to the next level of management, which was the regional director, and if it was beyond his sanction, the managing director. We're talking about anything over about a million pounds.
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Part of my job was going round my branches. I had to go round 25 or 26 branches, I was expected to go round them twice a year, just to look, and it was also a good PR thing between the branches and the Head Office. For its time, Head Office was pretty professional. In the mid '70s there was a major economic crisis in NI, and that really affected the bank's business very much. Companies that had been doing well stopped doing well. Around Belfast and some of the other larger towns, protection money was becoming a major problem, some of the firms were paying most of their money out in protection money, so when the economic downturn came, a lot of them went into liquidation and the bank lost a considerable amount of money.
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There was nothing we could do about the protection money. These were individual people who had threats made to them, if you don't pay up we'll shoot your family. They couldn't testify. If you went to the police with a story and the police set up a trap for them, you probably only got the messenger boys. The main men were somewhere else. We were in the same situation, we were getting branches blown up, there were raids on our branches, it was a very bad time for the bank.
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Some people perceived that it was a very Protestant bank. Staff-wise, that was probably true, but again there were historic reasons for it, because in 1968-69, the Northern and the Belfast amalgamated. The Belfast only had about two Catholics on their staff, out of around 1000. The Belfast used to operate on both sides of the border, and they were threatened out, and they actually had to send their business in the Republic to another bank. The Northern recruited mainly from Belfast, and middle-class Belfast people were Protestants. You had to come from a respectable family and be recommended by respectable people to get in, so the majority of staff in the Northern would have been Protestants. But when the two banks amalgamated, it threw the whole religious balance out of kilter. Bernadette Devlin and that lot were preaching against the Northern Bank at that time, but the bank knew the problem, and they were doing their best to resolve it, they were advertising for staff in Catholic papers, and they weren't advertising the same jobs in Protestant papers. But the religious thing was a bit of a red herring really, with hindsight the way they treated women was even worse. There were very few women managers. That was discrimination.
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When I entered the bank there were very few women, apart from typists and so on at Head Office, and it was the mid-'60s or early '70s, you had to leave if you got married, I think that was only put right in the middle '70s, that married women could stay at the bank. They had no pension rights. What they called the marriage gratuity was the equivalent of the pension plan. In Banbridge I was the spokesman for the union. We had two very good girls, and then one of them got married and she had to leave, this was absolutely ludicrous. I had someone here who was trained, and I was going to have to start again with someone from school, because the bank was getting rid of her. It was the same down in the Republic. The law down there was that if you were a civil servant or a professional person, you were not allowed to continue working if you were a married woman. Because the bank operated on both sides of the border we had to respect the laws in the Republic.
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Most of the local branch managers did complain, because there were some exceptional women who were forced to leave. And then when it was relaxed they were brought back in again. I always thought that it was crazy. So in the whole 40-odd years that I worked in the bank, the discrimination I saw was against women. By the time I left that was changed quite a bit. There were quite a few managers. When I finished in Waring Street one of my managers was a female and she's now a senior lending manager in Lisburn.
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At Advances Control, we were looking at the biggest companies in Northern Ireland, NIE, the school boards, the library boards, a very wide range. Government money kept a lot of the companies in existence though. Despite the government's efforts an awful lot of building companies, in particular, went out of business.
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I learned a lot about the technical side of banking when I was doing the job. I was in for six years which I think is the longest anyone has ever been doing the job. I then got a transfer to Lisburn to manage the Market Square branch, in 1982. I was there for five years and then I was asked to head up a team that was looking at the reorganisation of the retail network, that's the branch banks. As a result of that I got my appointment as regional director of the bank, so I had my own region.
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I was very much loyal to the bank. I looked on the other banks not just as competitors but as enemies, I would still be a very pro-Northern Bank person, I hate to hear bad publicity about the bank, even though I'm out of it nine years.
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This regional project I was on was brought about just after National Australia bought the bank from Midland, so it's been National Australia since 1987. But it didn't matter who owned the bank, we still looked on ourselves as Northen Bank. I think the Belfast Bank people would have objected strongly to seeing the Belfast Banking Company name go, and suddenly become Northern Bank, but I was always Northern Bank so it didn't affect me.
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I got a lot of satisfaction out of the bank. I don't think I could have done another job I'd have got the satisfaction out of. What I found was that there were times you went out on a limb for a customer, and you think I really shouldn't be doing this, but I can see this guy's going to make a go of it, and when that happened the amount of satisfaction you got, that was increased years later when the guy rang you up and said, only for you I wouldn't have had that. At one level it was building the bank's business and it was building a level of trust between the bank and its customers. That's what I got my satisfaction out of.
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I never thought about dealing with money. It's just symbols on a computer screen. Alright, I get my pension every week now, and I get my twenty pound notes into my pocket, that's really the first time I've physically dealt with money, because we were always paid through the bank account and we wrote cheques and so on. So money is not something I would think an awful lot about.
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Money doesn't change anything. The customer comes and asks for an overdraft of £10,000, and you give it to him, you don't hand him £10,000 in notes, it's a fairly abstract thing.
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I know I made my mistakes, everybody makes mistakes, but I don't think any of mine were serious ones. Anybody that wasn't able to meet their liabilities, there was usually a good reason for it. One of the hardest things I've found, if someone had their business blown up, and they came to the bank and asked for the money to start up again and I can do this and that and the other thing, the compensation they got from the building being blown up usually came nowhere near what it required to start up again. Most customers, if they hadn't very much behind them, had problems. Even if you built on the foundations of what had been your business premises, the Northern Ireland Office would say this is betterment, so they didn't get the compensation for the new place, just for the old place. There were a few things like that, but there's nothing I'm ashamed of. They were done in good faith. We bankers are a conservative lot, we tend to look on the black side. Sometimes the 'what if' is something you couldn't possibly have thought of.
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In my day, the person was equally important as the figures, but if you didn't trust the person you didn't lend them the money. My time at the bank was very much a studentship in human nature. I've come across crooks. I remember a guy coming into Head Office to persuade the bank to lend him £100,000, and if this guy had crook written across his brow, it couldn't have been any clearer that that was what he was. What he was doing was buying a business from a customer of ours, and this customer had been a straight, honest, hard-working guy I'd known since I came up to Belfast first, and he'd accumulated a good business through sheer hard work, and this guy came in who he'd agreed to sell the business to. I saw him coming in with this other customer I knew, I said are you going to lend it to him, they said well the figures are stacking up, I says that guy's a crook, an absolute and utter crook, I can tell by the look of him. Now don't ask me how I knew. To cut a long story short, the bank didn't lend him the money but he went along to another bank and got the money. How it happened I still don't know, but this customer signed over his business to this guy, and the guy sold it and absconded with the money. They never found him. It turned out the police in three other countries including South Africa and the USA were after him. But he took this poor guy to the cleaners.
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Car dealers were a favourite one. You had to watch them, some of the small-time car dealers dealing in secondhand cars, God they were crooks. But I basically found most people were honest and told you the truth and did their best to do what they said they were going to do.
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I'd say I have a pretty positive view of human nature. But I came across accountants who said to their clients that they were doing well and even with a cursory look at the balance sheet you could see that they weren't. It was hard. There's a bond of trust between a businessman and his accountant, there's got to be. It's very hard to convince a customer that the accountant is leading them up the garden path. When you look at the balance sheet, they're prepared in such a way that it looks as if the company's going well, but when you're experienced enough and you can cut out all the stuff that has been put in like work in progress, evaluations, stock and so on, you can see that the guy's not making any progress at all. It's hard on them when the business goes down. I've seen a number of businesses go down that was a surprise, to the proprietor.
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I had a very good relationship with this one customer, a manufacturing business up the York Road, but he had an even better one with his accountant, and I can remember nearly coming to blows with the accountant at the AGM one night, he was saying 'you've had another good year' and all the rest of it, and I was looking at the balance sheet, I hadn't seen it before, and I said, excuse me, this business is running at a loss. On his figures, it had made a trading loss of £15,000. He says I don't see how you can say that, and it nearly came to blows. The poor customer didn't know who to believe, he had a fairly good relationship with me, the upshot of it was that the man took a heart attack, and he left the running of the business to two of his managing directors, and in six months the business was up the left. It was in liquidation. They just ran out of money.
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