Opinion  

The changing face of financial services

Robin Greenwell

From cigars in the office to instant turnaround times: how things have changed in nearly 40 years.

I remember clearly starting my career in financial services back in October 1979 in the City of Durham.

Fresh from A-Levels, previous work experience was delivering post in my home village during school holidays. That gave me a taste of working practices but to join an office of 45 colleagues, aged 19, wearing my new suit, highly-polished black shoes and one of my Dad’s best ties, I felt totally alone.

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Thrown in at the deep end, as my first day involved the “post desk”, I soon realised “responsibility” was key in my new world. With responsibility for balancing the franking machine at the end of the day, I had no desire to find out what happened if it didn’t!

Lunchtimes were spent walking around Durham, visiting the cathedral and wondering when I’d feel brave enough to join colleagues in the tea room, amid the constant blue haze of smoke. 

What I believed was the odour of toasted teacakes in the working area turned out to be the manager’s cigars, lit to mark a successful day! 

There was a clear hierarchy in the office with ranks of senior colleagues addressed as “Mr” or sometimes “Sir”. Name badges worn by the seniors marked the structure as the only dress code was smart suits, shirt, tie, and no brown shoes.

Image was important and respect for our customers clearly was reciprocated - those attending appointments with the branch manager arrived in their Sunday best with an air of trepidation. 

Image 1: Behind the counter

Technology did not hinder us. Using our comptometer adding machine was a skill to demonstrate to the customers, who watched in awe. We had automated passbook entries (only just) but almost had to shout at our customers through the bandit screens. 

Thinking back, the whole working day was so different to nowadays. Queues were commonplace, including the mortgage queue where customers waited for their fund allocation to come to the top of the list. 

With average house prices at £61,000, typical mortgage rates of 12 per cent and beyond, Bank Base Rate at around 9 per cent and inflation standing at 13.40 per cent, it was indeed a different world.

Customers could be disgruntled at having to give 90 days’ notice to access their savings at a rate of 15.50 per cent - other than that the financial services world was quite calm.

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how many requests for account information required a memo to a central office, so a minimum three days to reply was the norm. Lending proposals needed a detailed typed submission with manually-calculated data in support, so a week’s turnaround wasn’t unusual.