The Greener Side of Banking- A conversation with Ulster Bank’s Agriculture Manager

Farming plays a huge role in our economy, and with a growing population and Brexit on the horizon, interesting and equally challenging times lie ahead from an economic, environmental and financial perspective. Ulster Bank understands how valuable farmers are, and we’re passionate about equipping our people with relevant agriculture knowledge to ensure they understand their clients’ needs and the financial requirements of their farm.

Dr Anne-Marie Butler, our Agriculture Manager, combines the perfect blend of farming and banking expertise. An ambassador for our agriculture sector, she understands the importance of educating her peers in the industry. Anne-Marie spends a great deal of time visiting client farms across the country, getting to know our farmers, their holdings and their individual financial requirements.

Hi Anne-Marie, thanks for talking to us today. Can you tell me how you came to be Ulster Bank’s Agriculture Manager?

I grew up on a tillage farm in Co. Kilkenny with a keen interest in both business and science subjects at school. I wanted to progress in both areas and the Degree programme in Agricultural Science at University College Dublin offered that pathway. I subsequently completed an undergraduate degree in Agri Business & Rural Development and a PhD in Agriculture from University College Dublin. Following my PhD completion, I was employed as the Farm Business lecturer in UCD for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. While I enjoyed lecturing and the student interaction, I was delighted to join Ulster Bank in 2008 as Agricultural Manager as it offered a wonderful blend of agriculture, finance and customer interaction.

Do you spend a lot of time on the various farms we’re involved with?

My remit covers the whole of the Republic of Ireland, all 26 counties, so I’m on the road about three or four days a week. I typically spend about two of those visiting our farming clients and their businesses. Farmers are busy and work long hours, especially at spring or harvest time. Farmers appreciate their bank visiting them to fully understand the farm system, developments, investments and opportunities. People are far more relaxed and comfortable within their own surrounds and this allows for more productive, informed conversation, particularly if the farm family are experiencing financial difficulties or stress.

Having a banker visit your farm to discuss and understand grass quality, achieved yields, milk constituents and animal gain to name just a few key metrics, gives the customer confidence to bank with us. Understanding their circumstances, requirements and evolving needs allows us to offer the appropriate products and services for their ever changing business.

Equally as important, farm visits and stakeholder meetings provide me with a fantastic insight into sector developments and emerging trends. As a bank, we can therefore respond accordingly to identified opportunities or potential risks. The agricultural market is constantly changing and as Agriculture Manager, I need to understand and communicate those insights to determine solutions and appropriate responses.

So, when you’re not on the farm…?

A significant part of my role is to provide support to all front line staff with agricultural lending cases across Business, Retail and Corporate Banking. This can range from existing customers, to new bank cases and customers experiencing financial difficulties. I provide technical and scientific input while also evaluating the financial viability of the proposal.

My job involves a lot of communication with both internal and external parties. When I’m not advising on agricultural lending, I’m visiting key stakeholders, intermediaries and research agencies to promote Ulster Bank. This interaction allows insight for new product development and an enhanced customer experience.

Our aim is not to be the biggest bank, but to be the bank offering the best relationships and customer journeys. It’s really important that we get to know our customers, their land, their farms and their ambitions. We want our customers to trust us and feel comfortable and confident that we understand their businesses and financial requirements.

It’s great that Ulster Bank employees have embraced agri education and want to gain a greater understanding of the industry. In 2013, Ulster Bank launched the Agri Accreditation programme which is accredited by Chartered Banker. To date, more than 80 staff members have completed the training which comprises online modules, site visits, guest lectures and days working with customers at their farms. I was the coordinator of the programme and very much enjoyed the staff interaction and feedback. The module was shortlisted in 2016 for the Irish Institute of Training and Development Awards. While not victorious on awards night, it was a tremendous experience with stiff competition.

As a development from the Agri Accreditation module, the Irish Institute of Bankers approached Ulster Bank to build upon the accreditation programme and develop a new agri training course for employees across the Irish financial services industry (a Professional Diploma in SME Credit – SME Agri Credit Assessment & Financing). I was responsible for the development of this new course and very much enjoyed the experience. The module, webinars, lectures and reading material is now complete. Registrations are on-going with the first exam available in May 2017.

I often return to UCD and Teagasc (the national agri research agency) to deliver guest lectures in relation to farm finance, financial education and life long learning. I enjoy these lecturing invitations as it offers great insight into student perceptions, ideas and banking experiences.

Farmers face challenges regularly; weather, disease, price volatility, legislative changes, climate change and labour constraints. Brexit implications and the presidential transition in America all contribute to the heightened volatility within the sector.

Consequently it’s going to be a challenging and unpredictable period. We therefore need to understand the potential outcomes and be cautious in our analyses. By developing and coaching our people, we’re in a much better position to serve our customers across all farm sectors.

Well, congratulations, it’s an amazing achievement!

Thank you! I also enjoy and value continuous education for myself. I recently won the President’s Prize for the Professional Diploma in Financial Services at the Irish Institute of Bankers graduation ceremony. The President’s Prize is awarded for the highest results in the programme.

Agriculture is perhaps traditionally thought of as a male dominated sector - has that ever been apparent at work?

No, I can’t say that it has. Thinking back to my degree, the course consisted of maybe 60% males, 40% females in a class of 180 students. When I return to university now, it’s closer to 50/50. Being a female in this profession has never caused any obstacles for me. Farmers value a banker that understands their farm and sector irrespective of sex, especially one that’s taken the time to visit the holding.

Gender isn’t really an issue in farming these days. The big concern is the age profile of the farming population. Less than 6% of farmers are under 35 and the average age is around 59. It’s more of a focus to get the next generation attracted to a career in farming and ensure there is an adequate labour supply to service these farms.

What are your other focus areas for 2017?

I’ll continue to drive awareness of the Ulster Bank brand in the sector and I’ll also work to strengthen our relationships with key intermediaries across the industry to embed the Ulster Bank brand and messaging. Agri training and staff development will also continue to be an area of focus.

I look forward to plenty more meaningful conversations with customers, and of course, I look forward to visiting their farms.

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