March 5, 2020
Craig Iley drains the remnants of a mid-morning brew, resting his now empty Christmas-themed mug on a patterned coaster.
Settling back into position on a cream sofa, a smile sweeps across his face.
“We were in a coffee shop chatting one morning,” he says, as memories of a Spanish adventure crystallise.
“I had meant to say that I’d been walking in the mountains over the weekend with a couple of guys and that it had been raining.
“But, because of the different intonations in the language, I proudly announced at the top of my voice – in my best Spanish – that I’d been having sex with two guys on a mountain.
“At that point, the whole place fell silent,” he laughs, “there were women behind the counter dropping cups, the guys with me couldn’t stop laughing and neither could my Spanish teacher when I asked her what I’d done wrong.”
Embarrassing as it may have been, Craig remembers the incident with fondness, since it forms part of a miscellany of tales from an enjoyable time in Bilbao, the port city at the heart of Spain’s fiercely proud Basque Country.
Multinational operator Santander Group had just taken over Alliance & Leicester in late 2008 and Craig – armed with years of experience that included founding a major commercial centre in Teesside for the mutual – had been chosen by his new employer for a landmark secondment.
The first person to fulfil the role from the company’s UK commercial division, he was charged with immersing himself in Santander’s culture during a four-month spell in 2009, to learn lessons that would strengthen the lender’s British operations.
It was a significant post and one that maintained Anglo-Iberian links between the North East and Bilbao.
From 19th century trade deals that swapped British coal for Basque minerals to fuel the region’s iron and steelmakers, to nomadic former Middlesbrough FC forward Fred Pentland’s revered management of Athletic Bilbao in the early 1930s, the two places have an historical connection. Such bygone eras, however, were far from Craig’s mind when he first arrived.
“I was dropped off outside the hotel about 1.30am,” he recalls.
“My bags were still in Paris, I was in a city I’d never been to before, I had no family or friends, I couldn’t speak Spanish and it was raining.
“I stood there thinking, ‘what on earth am I doing here?’
“But you are more adaptable than you think, and people are much more helpful than you imagine,” adds Craig, who was born in the front bedroom of Middlesbrough’s now demolished 22 Windsor Street, on Good Friday 1964.
With this positive mindset, Craig – who is a qualified banker – began to settle into his new surroundings.
Engaging with Santander’s philosophy during the working week, he used his weekends to sample Bilbao’s – and Spain’s – many attractions.
“I learned an awful lot on how banking worked in another part of the world,” says Craig.
“It was hard work though – you’ve never lived until you’ve had someone trying to explain complex treasury derivatives to you in Spanish!
“We have this view of Spain that everything is mañana, but they are very hardworking people,” continues Craig, who wrote a book about his trip – From the Boro to Bilbao – as a memento for his children Megan, Joshua and Elizabeth Lily.
“Your day started at 8am, you’d stop for lunch at 3.30pm and then work anywhere until 8.30pm.
“Outside the office, I went walking and climbing with one of my colleagues Antxon and his friends, and I’d get on buses to visit places like Pamplona, La Rioja, San Sebastien, Santiago de Compostela and Madrid – it was fantastic.”
When his Spanish journey drew to a close, Craig returned to the UK to begin building Santander’s corporate and commercial business across the North East and Cumbria.
Growing from virtually zero to a lending book of around £500 million in three years, it represented another successful chapter in a career kickstarted by some sage paternal advice.
“The expectation when I left school was that you would go into ICI, British Steel or work at the docks,” says Craig, who lives with wife Sue in Marton, near Middlesbrough.
“But my father, who had a very manually intensive job at the docks, said to me, ‘get a job in the bank, son – they shut at 3pm,’” he adds with a smile.
“I started at TSB, in Middlesbrough’s Albert Road, where I worked for a lovely bloke called Tony Jackson.
“When you look back at your career, there are probably four or five days that are pivotal – meeting Tony was one of those.”
Quickly identified as a rising star, Craig took on various roles, which included managing Birmingham credit teams that oversaw nearly a third of the country’s lending.
He stayed with the business – which merged with Lloyds in the mid-1990s – until 2005, when an opportunity arose with Alliance & Leicester.
“The banks had moved into residential mortgages in a big way, so the building societies decided they wanted to move into commercial lending and were recruiting people from the banks,” says Craig.
From here came Santander and Bilbao. Yet if that came as a surprise, it was nothing on his next venture.
Newcastle-born pioneer Anthony Thomson – who spearheaded Metro Bank’s launch to challenge the established elite – was keen to disrupt the market again.
Craig met Anthony and then North East Local Enterprise Partnership director Ed Twiddy in 2013 for lunch at Jesmond Dene House. It was to prove another pivotal day in Craig’s career.
The trio would eventually form part of the senior team that devised and launched Durham-based Atom Bank, the UK’s first digital-only lender that operates without any high street branches.
“Like meeting Tony Jackson, it was another day that changed my life,” remembers Craig.
“We were chatting about banking and after we’d had lunch, Anthony leaned over and said, ‘do you want to build a bank?’ Ed [now Atom’s chief customer officer] and I looked at each other and both went, ‘yeah, alright!’
“Six of us worked together in hotels on weekends to thrash out ideas; that was how Atom was born,” reveals Craig, who worked as managing director of business banking at the financial trailblazer.
“Metro proved it was possible to get a UK banking licence and Atom proved you could get a licence in a regional setting and move completely away from the branch-based model because of technology.
“It also showed you’ve got to embrace change – the digital revolution has nowhere near fulfilled its potential yet,” adds Craig, who is now using his vast experience to catalyse a new venture.
As founder and director of B-North, he is committed to helping provide vital financial support to the country’s battalion of small and medium-sized companies (SMEs).
Once operational, the challenger bank – which hopes to receive its licence and officially launch later this year – will provide loans of between £500,000 and £5 million up to ten times faster than large mainstream organisations.
Working with global fintech leaders, Craig says Manchester-based B-North will roll out a network of regional pods wherein highly skilled staff will closely support businesses expansion goals.
“SMEs create the wealth that the nation is built on, employ roughly half of the working population, create two-thirds of all jobs and are responsible for most of the education and innovation,” says Craig.
“But the way we treat businesses is one of the most shameful episodes in British banking.
“In 1988, roughly 40 per cent of all bank lending was to SMEs – it is close to four per cent now.
“The seeds were laid in the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher’s Government removed exchange controls,” he continues.
“It was the law of unintended consequences, but we ended up allowing all the big banks to buy the small players, which put a concentration of power in the hands of four or five main banks.
“The only way to solve the problem is to build a bank that is dedicated to SMEs.” Craig says B-North’s emergence will also help provide a more level playing field for domestic growth.
“B-North will move the dial again and prove we can build a much more efficient model in a regional setting,” says Craig.
“We will bring back more local control – through our regional pods – to adapt to regional conditions.
“National banks have procedures that apply across the country, but we think that’s one area where we can move the boundary.
“We talk about a Northern Powerhouse, but nobody is going to give us it – we have to build it,” continues Craig.
“To get there, you need infrastructure and access to public and private sector funding; you need your own banks.
“B-North will be part of the solution.
“It is going to take time to build our market share, but we have started the journey.”