The Business Interview: Lee Collinson
Bankers aren’t traditionally seen as energetic, passionate, enthusiastic or even, using a much bandied around word these days, authentic.
But meeting up with Barclays’ national head of manufacturing, transport and logistics, leaves me in no doubt; Lee Collinson is a natural ambassador not only for the bank but also the Yorkshire region for which he is a fervent advocate.
As someone who works with people helping to build presence and gravitas, I am impressed with his attention to detail and the way he articulates his brief.
Mr Collinson, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the clients he is principally responsible for at Barclays – large corporates with turnovers of £25m and over.
So, I ask, how did he come to take over the manufacturing brief?
“Barclays was the first bank to move to dedicated Industry specialists. We had teams in London that would specialise in key industries, we then expanded that to the regions. I used to be head of the large corporate business in the north of England but we recently made a decision to go down a purely industry specialist structure in the large corporate market of which we have six key industries: manufacturing, transport and logistics, consumer and healthcare, business services, technology, hospitality and leisure and energy & infrastructure.
Manufacturing was clearly one of the larger ones and I am delighted to run a national element of the corporate bank from the north. It makes sense as we are in the heartlands of manufacturing,” Mr Collinson explained.
He is proud that Barclays is not London centric, recognising the important role the regions play. “Based in the north we have Tony Walsh, national head of mid corporates – clients with turnovers between £6.5m and £25m, Karen Johnson based out of Manchester runs our consumer and healthcare industry specialist group and Debbie Mullen based out of Leeds is one of our leaders in our business services team. It is good to see Barclays taking the lead promoting people to senior positions and not expecting them to be based in London.”
Subtly is the name of the game. He does not make a big thing of talking gender balance, he just casually drops relevant snippets into our conversation that help draw a picture. Mention of Tony Walsh leads to a chat about the Northern Powerhouse as Tony, it transpires, represents Barclays on the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, the independent body for business and civic leaders.
“I travel extensively across the length and breadth of the country seeing businesses in the manufacturing, transport and logistics sectors but am based in the north of England, with three offices: Leeds Newcastle and Manchester.”
Over 30 years, the business environment has adapted to meet the many
changes that have occurred, none more so, than the period we live in now. As the old Chinese proverb says ‘may you live in interesting times. Part of the day job for Mr Collinson, is to take the pulse of businesses and hear first-hand what is going on, feeding back to the national teams so they can help and advise customers and clients.
Listening to clients’ experiences and helping business deal with the current business climate must give the teams plenty to focus on and think about.
“The biggest issue in the manufacturing sector at the moment is undoubtedly the skills shortage. Whether in the road haulage area, with the shortage of drivers and the aging workforce in the driver population, or in the more high-tech manufacturing business that are concerned about the lack of Millennials who do not see manufacturing as their career of choice.”
“We ran a survey at the end of last year and one of the findings showed only 6% of Millennials viewed manufacturing as their natural choice for a role. This is partly down to misconceptions about what manufacturing is all about. There is still a perception it is a dirty industry and, as we have already been talking about Andrew, with the development of technology, manufacturing is not the industry of 30 or 40 years ago.
“There is so much hi-tech innovation around us involving robotics for example, where as a country we often lead the way. We are trying to work with manufacturing customers to improve the perception of the industry.”
Skills has remained on the top of the business agenda for many years and today is no different. It perhaps shares the number one spot with the ‘B’ word and I am keen to find out what businesses think across Yorkshire, and if they mirror the UK picture. I raise the subject, Mr Collinson in his ebullient style brings me back to focus first on Yorkshire and the importance of the North of England.
“Partly” he explains “as it is my heartland. I have worked here for the past 31 years”
So, I return to the Northern Powerhouse and one of the most talked about areas here in Yorkshire, from a business perspective – transport infrastructure.
“The Northern Powerhouse is a great slogan, but most businesses I talk to don’t see a lot of delivery at the moment. It can’t be right; I can get to London by train quicker than to Liverpool from York. Leeds is grinding to a halt. Trying to get around Leeds during the rush hour on the M62 or M621 to quote an example, is very difficult and that has a knock-on effect, which makes life problematic for businesses in terms of lost productivity and the ability to connect across the 5 northern cities.
“I think there needs to be concrete action. We need central government to start delivering on the promises; whether electrification of the Leeds to Manchester railway line or improvements to the road network, such as the long discussed dualling of the A64.” Will that ever happen?
“Leeds is the largest city in Europe, “Mr Collinson continues, “without some sort of light tram or railway system. I was first approached about that in the mid-1990s. That is the sort of thing the north of England needs as part of serious investment. The spend per head is significantly less here than in the South East.”
He assures me Barclays is apolitical and is proud of its influencing role in the corridors of power be it in Westminster, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the English regions.
“We speak to a lot of politicians and industry forums. At the launch of our transport and logistic report, we were joined by the CEO of the Road Haulage Association. We try and influence through our clients and contacts. We were down in Westminster with Make UK, at the all-party group on manufacturing just before parliamentary recess. It’s here we can add to the debate with all the data and intelligence myself and colleagues gather from the many clients we visit, to illustrate through hard facts and evidence, the impact policy decisions can have on business.
“Here though, on my home patch we do need to see more investment in the transport infrastructure to help business prosper.”
Talk of infrastructure suddenly gets Mr Collinson excited.
“Did you know?” he says, “Barclays also has an investment bank. In fact, we are the last UK investment bank.”
I am tempted to interrupt with “and not a lot of people know that” but choose to let Mr Collinson continue with his serious point.
“An investment bank typically finances large infrastructure projects. We are the last full-scale investment bank outside of the US, heavily involved in infrastructure funding.
“We are trying to find ways of supporting industry; take for example renewables, I believe it is a big part of the transformation in Hull and the links with Siemens. We are able to help fund these infrastructure investments but central government has to lead the way.
“There are lots of misconceptions, so it is important to understand the importance of Barclays as the last UK investment bank.
“We need to get the message out about what investment banks do, their relevance and what they fund. That is really important. We do deliver on infrastructure projects.”
There it is again: passion and commitment coupled with talk of the power of collaboration, which brings us neatly to Yorkshire devolution.
“In this part of the world local government has to come together. It doesn’t help that we are not seeing the same collective responsibility that exists over in Greater Manchester. Having that type of devolution will benefit Yorkshire, in the same way as the Tees Valley devolution has helped in the North East. Certainly, in Manchester the collaborative working between the 10 local authorities has shown what can happen if the political will and desire is there.”
Before all of that can happen, we first have to sort out Brexit. There it is we are on to the ‘B’ word no escaping it.
“Brexit, everyone is sick of Brexit. The message I hear from businesses is: ‘let’s get on with it’. If you give business the certainty it needs, it can plan; without certainty it is difficult to make investment decisions. We are seeing clients putting off investment decisions. Some companies are unwilling currently to take the risk on a loan for new piece of kit, or move forward with a merger, raise equity. Largely due to the uncertainty over Brexit.
“When I travel across all the four countries of the UK it is the same message. Businesses want the government to resolve the situation once and for all. Whatever the outcomes we need certainty to plan. At the moment we are not clear how things will pan out.
“We have seen an increase in our deposits and we would like clients to have the confidence to make more investment decisions for the long term. But if you haven’t got that certainty it leads to a pause in the decision-making process.
“I hear from directors who want to invest in new machinery that unless they can be clear in terms of how it will impact on order books they will not progress with investments.
“Another point, that needs consideration, bearing in mind most businesses have not had to deal with them for over 40 years, are customs forms. The experienced people who used to deal with this side of things are long, long retired. Again, it does concern me some businesses haven’t done hardly any Brexit planning to be fully aware of what forms they will have to fill in if they are transporting goods to and from the continent.”
We saw in the PMI figures pre-29 March a significant upturn driven in part through stockpiling but obviously with the latest data it would appear that stockpiling has been unwinding. You can only stockpile so much. Part of Mr Collinson’s portfolio includes logistics and I ask for a snapshot of that industry sector as it is significant in the region.
“A lot of our clients that have warehousing or logistics depots have been running at or near capacity but if you have perishable goods and you are making foodstuff products, you can only store for so long. “
Life has changed during the 30 years Mr Collinson has been in the banking industry.
“In the banking industry, and I was only reflecting on this with an old contact the other day, we can remember the all-night completions and sleeping at lawyers’ offices!”
There is something special about Yorkshire and it doesn’t take long to understand, listening to Mr Collinson’s take on the region, the qualities that make up such a vibrant Yorkshire financial community.
“It is a very close-knit community. A lot of people working here now were around when I first started in Leeds way back in 1993. A lot of people I grew up with who were the young incoming talent in their firms, are now directors or partners. Yorkshire has been able to retain the best talent. It might have spent some time in London, Manchester or further afield but the pull back to Yorkshire has always been strong.
“Leeds has a very strong financial base, reflected by the strength of the legal, accountancy and banking professionals. For the size of the finance world, the level of deals completed in this part of the world outweighs the pure size of the community.
A lot of non-Yorkshire deals are actually done by Yorkshire professionals whether bankers, accountants or lawyers. I would like to see more venture capital firms back in the city. Going back 20 years there used to be a dozen or so.”
So, what of the changes?
“Life has changed, we have talked about the modern workplace. A lot of what happens now is done electronically, such as no longer needing wet signatures on some documents”
To you and me that means physically not having to sign a document with a pen.
“It is perhaps, a little bit more civilised. Business due diligence takes longer than it used to as people are more cautious in making sure they thoroughly understand every aspect of it.
Mr Collinson still sees the same faces around something which is important to him and the sector, as it gives certainty, trust and goodwill.
Trust, is a point Mr Collinson wants to get over, and is obviously a value he appreciates in his 30 years seeing the banking industry change so much.
“Yes, we compete heavily on most transactions, but we do also work together as part of a banking syndicate or a banking club when required to provide businesses with the level of funding they require - often working in conjunction with a number of local legal and accountancy firms where mutual trust and respect is vital across all the professional firms involved’
My time is nearly up and Mr Collinson is off to his next meeting and, as if to prove a point, he energetically gets up from the comfy chairs we have been sitting on in his office, to move to his desk. “The benefits of technology,” he says as he switches on the computer ready to do a conference call with someone, well who knows where, it doesn’t matter, he is enthusiastic, passionate and authoritative and ready to take the pulse of UK industry.