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Memories
043 

A Day in the Life of a Branch Manager

 

by Norman Worwood

 

As it is quite possible that some of the features of bank security systems are still relevant today, it would not be appropriate to discuss a manager's role in obtaining access to the "old time" BMB branch, an act that was of course necessary before even starting the day's work. It is sufficient to mention that perhaps the first task of the day was to wake up thoroughly. Should the branch manager leave behind any of his means of access, it meant that neither he (she) nor any of the staff could get into the branch until assistance was obtained from Head Office -- difficult in itself, because the telephone was inside the branch and mobile telephones had not been invented --- or until the manager had returned home and then rushed back to the branch. (Although there were flats over most branches, with some of them actually occupied by managers, it was not customary for managers or staff to live over their own workplace). Such forgetfulness was extremely unlikely to befall a manager, though I myself was actually present when a "key incident" occurred. The manager was standing on the other side of the counter and called to his senior assistant: "Chuck the keys over, Bill!". Bill did just that, over a distance of about fifteen feet, but the manager failed to catch the bunch, with the result that the keys fell heavily on to a terrazzo concrete floor --- and the very key he required had snapped nicely in two! When Head Office staff were called to the rescue, I am afraid that their several enquiries were answered with white-lies. Cited as an explanation, "Chuck the keys over, Bill" would never have gone down too well.

 

Until a much later period in the Bank's existence, there was no formal training for managership and promotion to manager was largely by the process of "Buggins' Turn", i.e. professional qualification, seniority and years of service were the criteria by which a prospective manager was deemed ready to look after a branch, rather than any personal attributes. Systems for running the branch were closely standardised, so that any variation in management techniques were largely a matter of style --- which differed greatly between managers: and initiatives -- which would be frowned upon by Head Office if they were too far from the norm. Individual managers' treatment of depositors was sometimes distinctive, as one manager might for instance expect a person to comply exactly with Bank rules regarding "notice" for withdrawing larger sums than strictly allowed, whereas another might allow a great deal of latitude. The latter was a technical breaking of Bank rules, but could create a lasting, good impression in the depositor's mind. It follows that one manager's standard for successful running of a branch might differ completely from that of another.

 

On arrival, all staff including the manager were required to sign a time-sheet showing their time of arrival and (at the end of the day) their time of departure. For many years the Bank's opening hours began at 10 a.m. from Monday to Saturday, inclusive, with an additional evening opening on Friday and it was believed by some misguided Birmingham folk that 10 o'clock was when work started, whereas a prompt 9 a.m. was actually the case. At a number of busier branches the manager and a few staff would willingly and regularly arrive as much as thirty minutes beforehand in order to cope with an expected workload. Where large factories such as Fisher & Ludlow and Rover Cars were nearby, their employees in their thousands belonged to BMB savings schemes, in which fixed, authorised amounts were deducted from their weekly wage. These sums were aggregated into four-weekly totals, a paper list of which was then sent to the nominated branches by the Bank's "clearing" system via the normal post. The aggregated sums represented four weeks' "stoppages", i.e. the depositor had "saved" for four weeks and in more than 50% of cases now needed the accumulated cash to pay bills or spend in more pleasurable ways. Moreover, these savers would most likely be aware that the money had been now remitted to their accounts, so they would attend at the branch as quickly as possible. "As quickly as possible" usually meant sometime during the factory dinner-hour on the same day that the branch had received the lists. To satisfy this demand the branch staff might have several hundred amounts to "post" (i.e. enter separately into the depositors' ledger accounts) and "balance" in those four short hours between 9 a.m. and (say) 1 p.m. It was an issue on which managers disagreed. Were such short-term savings of benefit to the Bank or not? There was no statistical way of discovering the answer, so staff mostly stuck with their own particular opinions. Whichever view was held, it was an event that necessitated the manager's acquisition of much more cash than was normally held and the organisation of a huge workload over a very short period of time. Much the same problems with cash holdings occurred during the intense periods of summer holiday withdrawals from accounts, for at a time when cash dispensers were unheard of and when credit/debit cards were non-existent, a constantly nagging worry for a manager was how to judge whether his arrangements for cash supplies were adequate to meet demand, yet sufficiently conservative to satisfy the limits imposed by insurance cover. Moreover, due to the different types of area in which branches stood, they had differing patterns of incoming and outgoing cash, so that there were no standards by which managers could make decisions. Part of that judgment also included a reasonably accurate assessment of the amounts "under notice", duly entered in the Notice Book (notice for large amounts being one of the rules governing accounts). Failing to have spotted a notice figure of several thousand pounds could make a manager decidedly jittery by the day's end.

 

The lists of credits, together with Head Office correspondence of all kinds were contained in the daily Head Office envelope, received originally by post and later by courier. Before opening-time, however, there were many other matters that the manager had to control, before dealing with the remaining, maybe less important contents of the daily Head Office envelope and all the different sundry postal items from other sources. If relief staff had arrived for their first day, the manager had to allocate them to their specific duties, taking into account any known strengths or weaknesses. If it was a "hand-branch", the weighty, leather-bound ledgers had to be carried from their overnight lodgment in the strong-room and placed in numerical order on the sloping desks, and if a "machine-branch" the lids of the fireproof bins containing the ledger cards had to be unlocked and opened. Each cashier's cash, again lodged in the strong-room overnight in locked boxes, had to be carried to the relevant cashiers' counter positions and verified against the previous day's cash book totals. Similarly, the reserve cash under the manager's care had to be counted by an independent member of staff, in order to guarantee the figure at the start of the day. At a machine-branch, the respective ledger cards for the day's deposits would often have been removed from the bins at closure on the previous day, but they now had to be supplemented by the newly received works' credits. At a hand-branch, the posting of the deposits and payments to the ledgers would commence in earnest. At a small branch, the manager would be responsible for "extracting" the postings on to the "extraction pads", whereas in a machine-branch or a large hand-branch a more senior staff member might be delegated to the checking procedures, with the manager assuming ultimate responsibility for their accuracy. Importantly, as much as possible of this work had to be done before opening at 10 a.m., because the remainder of the day would be continuously punctuated by the influx of depositors, thus reducing considerably the number of staff available for "back" work. It has to be remembered also that in a number of hand-branches, the manager might also open a till during the lunch interval or at other times of staff shortage. Indeed, in the earlier days of the Bank, almost all managers did so.

 

Finally, before the doors were opened to the public, blotters at the customer cubicles were refreshed, inkwells filled and pen-nibs changed if necessary. Later in the Bank's history, pen and ink were replaced by the ubiquitous ballpoint pen, when it soon became evident, that they were being frequently stolen. On a personal note, at one branch I acquired from a college Arts and Crafts examiner some copper ashtrays, made by students in their examinations and which otherwise were thereafter destined for waste. They looked extremely elegant when polished and placed on the public counter at the various cashier positions. Within two days every one of the half-dozen or so had disappeared and (tempting Providence) they were replaced until all my supplies had eventually gone. I could only hope that their new owners appreciated all the hard work that had been invested in the manufacture of them.

 

With the day's routines safely under way, the manager could now attend more closely to the post. The typical Head Office missive might contain in addition to the Clearing Department items, new instructions on certain branch procedures, a draft form for signature by a claimant for an out-of-the-ordinary "deceased" account, statistical forms for completion, "M" Account cheques (a type of banker's draft) drawn by Head Office to satisfy requests by depositors, and answers to enquiries regarding Nominations, etc. Some of these contents might require immediate attention, including the circulating of information to the staff normally by word-of-mouth, whilst drawing particular attention to matters involving urgent or imminent changes to procedures. If necessary, staff would be required to initial instructions where failure to observe them might later be a matter of dispute and/or discipline.

 

Wherever possible, full replies to letters were sent by return post, a routine that was widespread: it was considered unprofessional to delay matters by merely acknowledging receipt and replying at leisure. In the earliest days, letters were handwritten, but typewriters quickly became available and the missing ingredient was a competent typist. Larger branches sometimes included an unsuspected (and unsuspecting!) typist among the cashiering staff and such a person would then be used in a dual role, but shorthand writing was an additional skill rarely possessed, so that the manager first had to supply a long-hand letter for the would-be typist to copy, considered by some a somewhat counter-productive solution. Many managers therefore typed their own correspondence, albeit with two fingers and the occasional thumb, hence being unable to blame anyone other than themselves for faulty grammar, spelling, typing errors, et al. At a busy branch, incoming telephone calls would be a constant distraction and since many of them would finally be passed to the manager for attention, many managers picked up the 'phone themselves thus saving time and arguably increasing branch efficiency. Customer queries at the counter often needed managerial intervention and interrupted any activities the manager might otherwise be engaged upon. Interviews with depositors were conducted either at a counter-space separated from the other counter positions by a screen or in a small, separate office. As this office was accessible from both sides of the counter, it was vital that both doors were kept locked during any interview. Security was of constant concern and it would be many years before glass screens were erected to separate depositors from staff, an innovation that had unfortunate consequences for easy communication. Even though a depositor was being served by a cashier at the time, many managers habitually greeted him or her with a friendly "good-morning" and their "regulars" with perhaps an enquiry after their elderly parents or children, but such contact ceased with the introduction of the glass barrier, so that a wonderful opportunity for good customer relations was lost in the cause of greater security. It was, after all, close contact with the depositors that made the routines of banking so much more enjoyable, as almost without exception the many types of people visiting the branch were both interesting and well-inclined to the staff, and vice versa.

 

This contact was experienced even more so when a private and often long interview was necessary in order to discuss sympathetically a representative's need for information regarding a deceased depositor. Before the person could proceed with any applications to transfer or close any account(s) of a depositor, a Death Certificate had to be produced and details of the estate had to be gleaned. What was likely to be the value of the entire estate? Procedures would vary in the many different circumstances. Was there a Will? Was property involved? Was a solicitor necessary or could the matter be dealt with "in branch"? To give inaccurate advice would be unthinkable and great care was taken to ensure that a representative left the branch properly informed.

 

The Bank also had access to stockbrokers, their chosen firm being Chambers & Remington of the Birmingham Stock Exchange, who charged standard commission, but paid a proportion of it to the Bank as agents. Many share sales conducted through branches came from depositors who belonged to company employee-share schemes. The depositor might wish to obtain "best" or "minimum" prices for their shares, which would necessitate a telephone call to the broker to ascertain the current price. On occasions an old, long-forgotten share certificate might yield a pleasant surprise, as happened in one instance with a South African gold mine share issue, which indeed proved to be a personal "gold mine" for the depositor.

 

Changes of name by deed poll; alleged misuse of a passbook by a relative; powers of attorney; all were presented for the manager's attention at some time or another and rarely a day went by without similar incident. Where possible, depositors were given assistance with tasks they might be quite unable to manage themselves, particularly if they were unfamiliar with business processes: managers were forbidden to accept reward, but sometimes a depositor would insist on giving something as simple as a bunch of flowers "for the wife, you see", which if nothing more was an indication of their appreciation for advice given freely and willingly.

 

Staff breaks for refreshment were "snatched" affairs, with only thirty-minute shifts even for lunch itself, although this period was unofficially flexible by about ten minutes, during which time the current shift might prepare (i.e. light the small gas-cooker and begin heating a small snack) for the succeeding shift. Head Office was the only place where the staff amenities included a canteen, but even there the meal-time was subject to the same limits. On Friday, the branch was closed for two hours (later only one hour) prior to the evening opening, when those living sufficiently near might dash home for tea. Most might do some local shopping, the manager and other volunteers possibly "working through" part of the time in the interests of a speedier finish at the end of a long day. The manager was responsible for ensuring that though short, these breaks were properly observed and that the constancy of service to depositors was in no way affected. As with a good wig, hopefully they did not see the join.

 

At the close of every day, the cashiers had to balance their cash against the contents of their cash book, which contained each transaction made by a depositor, plus individual figures for the sum totals of collections on behalf of the various public utilities for which the Bank was an agency, and of any cash paid to or received from the manager's reserve cash. Likewise, the manager had to balance his Reserve cash. If a cashier could not achieve their balance, a search would begin to locate the cash difference, which might he due to a mistake in actual cash-handling or a clerical error and might equally affect the Reserve cash. Apart from a simple arithmetical error in or affecting the cashbook, only a detailed analysis of the cashier's transactions could find the difference: even one penny was considered important and the manager could not authorise any unofficial "adjustment" to rectify matters. It was known that such a small error might occasionally become mysteriously solved, but woe betide the manager who knew of the process, especially if it turned up in the accounts at a later date. Larger cash differences would quickly involve the manager whose greater experience might be valuable in tracing the difference: worse, failure could need visits from an inspector, or even more than one if an exceptionally large sum was missing. The entire staff would then remain at the branch, maybe for some hours, until there was some resolution. The manager was an integral part of this search, and had to quieten the frustration of staff who might have no obvious connection with the matter in hand and wished nothing more than to go home. It was a time when a good team spirit was in his hands.

 

One day could seem very much the same as the preceding day, which sounds a very dull existence, but for a manager was not at all so. Each day was full of different challenges: awkward staffing arrangements: depositors with problems and queries quite new to the manager's experience; fresh instructions from Head Office, which could completely change a standard routine; innovations such as decimalisation and computerization; "stubborn" ledger balances where errors defied solution, and many more.

 

Finally, the manager's signature would appear on every accounting document and letter emanating from the day's labours: accounts of the collections on behalf of public utilities, daily returns to Head Office, etc. and would need to satisfy himself (or unusually, herself, for manageresses were rare) that the documents were accurately and properly constructed and that the next morning would produce no critical telephone calls from the recipients, especially Head Office. The day was over. All the procedures at the start of the day were now put into reverse and the branch made secure. Depending on what had occurred during the day, the manager may return home satisfied that everything had gone well or worried that some hidden peril had gone undetected.

 

On the other hand, it could just be the manager's bad luck that his journey home was delayed. The staff having all departed from one particular branch, I had stayed on for an hour or so to do some typing, when there was a fierce ringing of the bell at the branch entrance door. Looking through the "spy-hole", I saw a smartly-dressed, elderly lady carrying a brief case and despite my telling her through the securely chained door that the branch was closed, she stated that she was demanding entry as she was a Government inspector and under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act had a right to come on to the premises during working hours. She produced an identity card bearing the issuing signature of Barbara Castle M.P., who was at that time a Secretary of State and I decided that the latter was a political figure-head not to be denied. Her inspector's first utterance was to ask where the relative sections of the Act were displayed and I replied that they were locked in the strong-room, as we were now closed and the staff had all gone home. When she demanded that I take steps to open the strong-room in order to retrieve the extracts and to pin them on the staff-notice board, I informed her that (regretfully) I was not prepared to recall the necessary staff for this to happen. She tutted loudly and wrote some remark on her pad. Black mark No. 1. Her gaze alighted on a fire-extinguisher fastened on the wall, and which had been regularly inspected and tested by the Fire Service. She measured its height and decreed that it was two inches too high and would be too heavy to lift, "and don't tell me you can lift it. You might be the one on fire!". I had to agree that that sounded eminently logical, but earned Black mark No. 2. She told me that these faults would be reported to "your Head Office": then she went and I fear that I omitted to thank her for her courtesy and understanding. A few days later I had a telephone call from the then Superintendent of Branches, who asked: "Have you done what she said? Yes? Great! Let me know if she comes again". She didn't.

 

Either way, each manager departing for his or her home would have completed a day filled with responsibilities to the public who had visited the branch, especially to those who maintained their accounts with the Bank, to the staffs of the branch and administration departments; and --- last but not least --- to the success and image of the Bank itself.
 
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