Virgin Money is planning a fresh assault on UK high-street banking with a raft of new product launches in January, after its purchase of nationalised lender Northern Rock is set to complete on New Year’s day.
The £1bn purchase will give Sir Richard Branson’s banking business 75 new branches and access to a full suite of products, including mortgages and current accounts. However, its immediate focus will be on broadening its range of saving accounts, as part of a nationwide advertising campaign to be launched on January 8.
Virgin currently has just one deposit account paying 0.1 per cent interest. It is preparing to launch a number of new accounts in January with more competitive rates.
The bank is pressing ahead with its plans in spite of a National Audit Office inquiry into the sale of Northern Rock. The deal drew criticism from Labour politicians as the state-owned bank was sold for about £400m less than the £1.4bn of taxpayer support it received following its bail-out.
Also, about a third of the £747m cash price will be funded from the state-owned bank’s current capital base. The total consideration also included £150m in debt and up to a further £130m depending on future performance.
Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Virgin Money’s chief executive, said she was unconcerned about the public spending watchdog’s investigation, which was “expected”.
“We went through a rigorous process in every respect and our offer was the best on the table by far,” she told the Financial Times.
The NAO confirmed that it cannot delay the sale and will investigate it after it has completed.
Virgin plans a “light rebrand” of Northern Rock as soon as it acquires the business to make clear it is part of the Virgin Group. It is working towards what Ms Gadhia called “red day” – when the Northern Rock name will disappear, replaced with Virgin Money’s conspicuous red and white branding – in six to nine months’ time.
Virgin is also hoping to beef up its credit card business in 2012 through acquiring part of MBNA’s UK and Ireland portfolio, which is being sold by Bank of America.
Virgin runs its card operations in partnership with MBNA and is bidding for about a third of the £10bn credit card book that is made up of 2m of its own customers. As part of the deal it has the right to buy this slice of the business in the event of a sale.
In total Virgin Money has about 3m customers across its range of cards, insurance, pensions and other investments. The Northern Rock deal will bring an additional 1m, mainly savings and mortgage customers.
Northern Rock has only a limited branch-based current account with about 120,000 users. Virgin expects to upgrade this into a fully functional account with online access, although not until the end of 2013.
This will coincide with the proposed introduction of a new government-backed switching service to make it easier and quicker for current account customers to move between providers. However, Virgin plans to break from the traditional “free” model by charging a monthly fee for most of its accounts. Some consumer groups have warned that monthly charges may deter customers who are wedded to “free” accounts even though they may be paying high hidden charges.
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