Chairman, Castle Community Bank
Interview: Iain May
Faith in action
There was a touch of irony in meeting the minister for south Leith on the day that Lloyds Bank finally repaid its sins of the past and was released from taxpayer internment.
Iain May was a high-flying banker who enjoyed the trappings of a well-paid job: a six-figure salary, cars on the drive, a 45ft yacht and a big house on the the Irish coast just north of Dublin.
These were the heady days of banking but even with the money flowing and a lifestyle to match, he knew, instinctively, that there was something rotten in the system and he could not go on.
“Something happened within me. We had a nice, comfortable lifestyle but I was not comfortable with it. I felt my personal integrity was being challenged by some of the things that were going on,” he says.
It was 2005, two years before cracks in the banking system began to emerge. May, at the time, was head of planning and strategy at Allied Irish Bank where he had worked since leaving Royal Bank of Scotland five years earlier.
He knew of one middle manager in the industry who managed to build a multi-million pound property portfolio, another who asked for seven times his salary in order to get a mortgage.
“I was told to let him have it as we had to look after our staff. But I didn’t think that was looking after them, it was storing up trouble.”
It was during a trip to the Festival of the Sea in Leith that May turned to his wife and said: “It’s crazy I can’t do this anymore.”
He went back home to Ireland and his manager advised some time off. “I took it, and I never went back,” he says.
It was to prove a big turning point in his life. Returning to his native Scotland he made his first encounter with a credit union and applied for a job.
“It was paying something like £25,000 a year. But it wasn’t about the money. I just wanted to help people and do things differently,” he says.
He was drawn to the ministry, studied divinity at Edinburgh University, and six months after taking over at his Leith parish he was approached about helping those in the community who were struggling with pay day lenders and other money brokers.
Fast forward to last summer and he used his banking skills to pull the existing credit unions in Edinburgh together, enlist some support from a few ex-colleagues, and launch Castle Community Bank. Now approaching its first birthday he’s singing the virtues of a return to the sort of simpler banking that he believes the big corporates lost on their way to becoming huge corporations.
“Banking really is quite simple. We offer savings and loans. Money comes in and we lend it out. That’s it,” he says.
There are a handful of staff, and the bank – a credit union with regulatory permission to call itself a bank – operates online, though it has two branches (in Wardieburn and Craigmillar), soon to become three with the opening of an outlet in Leith.
There are no external investors in the North Edinburgh and Castle Credit Union – to give it its proper name. May is chairman, while his son, also Iain, is marketing manager.
Bringing all the credit unions together has been a small, but significant masterstroke.
“The people running them were doing a good job of helping people and so on, but they needed someone to run a business. They had a credit union licence, which was a big start, and when we combined our activities we had £250,000 of assets and almost 400 customers. That gave us a good start.
“The banks would have spent millions just getting to that stage. It cost us £40,000 to set up. Now we have £800,000 in assets.”
After what happened in the bigger banks, and even the smaller ones such as the Airdrie, he is fully aware of the risks attached to stretching his tiny business. Even so, he sees opportunities.
“I would like to see this sort of thing all across Scotland,” he says, adding that he has to balance his role as a minister with that of running a bank.
“This is not just banking, it is faith in action,” he says. “It is a mission and I think we have a chance of making a difference.”
Education: Edinburgh university (Divinity)
Career Highlights: American Express, Royal Bank of Scotland (marketing manager for the credit card business); AIB (head of planning and stratgy); Castle Community Bank (chairman)