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When the tough gets going Saturday interview David Thorburn The chief operating officer of Clydesdale Bank relishes a challenge, as Mark Williamson discovers

ASK David Thorburn how he unwinds and the man leading efforts to restore the fortunes of one of the most venerable names in Scottish banking replies with a candour not often heard in business.

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''Well, it's a bit difficult actually.'' Pressed to expand he admits that playing around in a room full of guitars and electronic music gadgetry in his Stirlingshire home figures large in efforts to de-stress from the rigours of life as chief operating officer of the Clydesdale Bank. Since Clydesdale's owner, National Australia Bank, announced a third successive fall in annual profits for the European operations of which the Scottish bank is a key part earlier this month, Thorburn may well have been spending a fair amount of time in the den lately. A tale of underperformance writ large in the numbers is hard to fathom in an age when bigger fish such as Royal Bank of Scotland have been making money against a favourable economic backdrop. To observers of the UK banking scene, however, it made for an all too familiar story of the consequences of under-investment in Glasgow-headquartered Clydesdale by NAB, dating back years. So obvious had this become that John Stewart, the tough Scot who sold Woolwich to Barclays Bank and now runs NAB, made a clean breast of it almost as soon as he took on the top job in Melbourne earlier this year. However, sitting in Clydesdale's air-conditioned Edinburgh corporate office, Thorburn shows no signs of being dispirited by the challenge. Rather, enthusing about the niche strategy the bank intends to use to outsmart bigger fish, the 46-year-old appears to be enjoying work, exhibiting a confidence in Clydesdale's robustness that some analysts question. In the case of Thorburn, whose favourite subject at school in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, was history, that confidence may owe much to the fact he knows all too well that the bank has lost its way before and survived to tell the tale. After slogging his way through a law degree at the University of Glasgow, Thorburn entered the record books as one of the first cohort of graduate trainees hired by Clydesdale in 1978. He went on to serve his time filling in old-style pass books in branches from Glasgow to Piccadilly Circus and insists that the experience was fun. ''I really liked working with people, and that's really stuck with me all my career. I never lost the bug of working at the customer end of the business.'' These days his job, which also includes heading up Yorkshire Bank, is all about high-level strategy but Thorburn says he still makes time to visit clients across Scotland. In an early taste of what was to come, however, Thorburn became so concerned by the failure of its then owners, Midland Bank, to invest in Clydesdale that he jumped ship for TSB Scotland in 1984. Thorburn only moved back to Clydesdale in 1993, when his boss, chief executive Charles Love, was head-hunted by NAB to sort out Clydesdale, which it had bought in 1987. Within a year, Love was killed at the age of 48 by a heart attack and Frank Cicutto, recently sacked as chief executive of NAB after a series of reverses, was drafted in from Melbourne to run the show briefly. Thorburn is understandably reluctant to make too much of the achievements of Cicutto's successor, Fred Goodwin, who earned his ''Fred the Shred'' nickname by making inroads into Clydesdale's cost base. ''He certainly caught a lot of people's attention in his period with the company and one could see he was destined for great things.'' It may be a reflection of Goodwin's stature that after he defected to Royal Bank in 1998 a succession of executives passed through NAB's European operations without any having the authority or getting the chance to impose themselves on Clydesdale. Whatever the case, Thorburn says it is ''wrong to point fingers at one person.'' The historian in him is mindful also of a lesson he was given by a professor at Harvard University Business School, who said: ''You should never criticise the past as you don't know the circumstances people were in at the time.'' Chosen by NAB to complete the advanced management programme at the Ivy League university in 1999 in a sign of the regard in which he was held, Thorburn says the experience was so stimulating he will almost certainly end up boring his grandchildren about it. Highlights outside the classroom for the father of three included playing five-a-side football with classmate Ian McLeod, a former chief executive of Celtic FC. Notwithstanding his reluctance to apportion blame, other comments suggest that Clydesdale became an increasingly hard place to be after his return home. ''Going through a period of under-investment is not great fun. It's certainly a much more enjoyable world to be in these days.'' He is satisfied that under Stewart's leadership NAB has drawn a line in the sand. ''I'm convinced that the group is committed to Yorkshire and Clydesdale. That's been made clear for some time,'' says Thorburn. The fact that Stewart funded a push into England this year despite tough times spoke volumes about his faith in the bank's potential. This is under a strategy which should satisfy the requirements of another great Harvard influence, Michael Porter, a management guru, whose lectures on the need for strategic focus Thorburn recalls with something like awe. ''If you're not a scale player, you need to have a differentiated strategy, something a bit different, something unique.'' In the case of Clydesdale, which is dwarfed now by the likes of RBS and HSBC, lack of scale means it can move quickly and really focus on customer service given in person which will be its unique selling point. ''A big aspect of the way we're doing things to be different from other banks is by giving access to decision-makers as a priority.'' At the same time, failure to invest enough in times past in developing competitive products in markets like mortgages and business banking means Clydesdale expects to make up lots of ground simply by revamping its offering. For example, Thorburn has high hopes of a new offset mortgage, on which interest is charged on borrowings net of credit balances on customers' current and savings accounts, which will be launched in January. New business banking and wealth management centres in England are all delivering according to plan, and a fledgling business selling mortgages through advisers is growing rapidly. ''Early indications are encouraging,'' Thorburn insists, even if the scale of the task is huge. ''We've got our work cut out, there's no doubt about that. It is a turnaround and that's the hardest thing to do. We're not yet half way through that process and we're very aware that we have to get on with it.' Thorburn, however, is happy enough to stake his career on making the changes work, admitting to no ambitions other than ''to see this through''. Talking admiringly of the fact his 70-something engineer father is still working, he appears ready for the long haul if that is what it takes. He looks forward to plenty more vacations exploring the US with his wife, Maureen, and the children. However, proud to find himself next in line for the chairmanship of the Chartered Institute of Bankers, previously held by the likes of Goodwin, Thorburn may find making time to achieve unwinding becoming increasingly difficult to come by. Viewpoint 1958: Born in Glasgow. Educated at Hamilton Academy before studying law at Glasgow University. 1978: Joined Clydesdale Bank as graduate trainee. 1984/1993: TSB Scotland. 1993: Rejoined Clydesdale as senior manager to set up structured finance unit in head office. April 2002: Appointed chief operating officer, Clydesdale Bank. October 2004: Added responsibility for Yorkshire Bank.

Other interests: Senior vice-president of Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland; council member, CBI Scotland; director, Scottish Financial Enterprise. Lives in Stirlingshire with wife Maureen and three children. Hobbies include motorsport and music.

Childhood ambition: Various based around being professional sportsman or musician.

Best moment: Being told I was being sent to Harvard Business School by National Australia Bank to undertake an advanced management programme.

Worst moment: Hearing we have lost a customer.

What drives you: Competing and winning.

What car do you drive: Subaru.

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