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Branson backs his new team to score; But future of foundation is still unclear.

Byline: Adrian Pearson

SIR Richard Branson has backed former Northern Rock staff but stopped short of committing himself to continued financial support for the bank's charitable arm.

On his first visit to see the home of his new Virgin Money empire, Sir Richard praised hard-working staff at the former Northern Rock branches and headquarters and said he was confident the days of large scale redundancies were behind them.

The Gosforth-based business was sold to Virgin Money in a pounds 747m deal, which includes 75 branches and 2,100 staff, one million customers, a pounds 14bn mortgage book and retail deposits worth pounds 16bn.

Sir Richard was mobbed yesterday by curious customers and passers-by on his visit to Newcastle's Northumberland Street branch.

In 2007 the same branch was seen in news reports across the world as people queued around the block to withdraw their savings.

Sir Richard said he believed the business would now go from strength to strength and added that he regretted the bank could not have been renamed Virgin Rock.

The historical name will soon disappear from the high street, remaining only on the face of the Northumberland Street branch clock, a feature the tycoon said he was happy to keep.

But despite his optimistic message for the bank there was guarded support for the Northern Rock Foundation, the region's largest dedicated charity.

At present the foundation is having to use up its reserves to continue helping out as bank cash is linked to so-far unreachable profits.

Asked his views on the foundation, Sir Richard said: "I think 90% of my time is now spent on charities and not-for-profit organisations, and the foundation has done a great job,and we will keep it going looking after local charities."

Pressed if that support would extend past 2013, Sir Richard said: "I don't know all the details, but I would very much hope so.

"It was a great idea to have a local foundation attached to a local bank and we are a Newcastle-based organisation, a North East-based organisation, we want to keep that. In some form or another I will try and make sure the foundation is protected." There was a more straightforward message for the workforce. He said: "We have some 2,000 wonderfully loyal people here, a lot of whom went through the problems a few years ago.

"I am pleased to meet some of them today. We have had fantastic feedback about these changes and I look forward to working with them to build this into a formidable bank which takes on the big banks and gives them a run for their money." Sir Richard said he wanted more branches and hopefully more staff, but said he would not be adding the Virgin name to Newcastle United's ground, St James' Park.

The company was announced as the club's new shirt sponsor last week - succeeding Northern Rock - and the naming rights for the ground are also up for grabs.

AUDIT PROBE 'NO BIG DEAL' THE National Audit Office investigation into the sale of Northern Rock is of no concern to Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Money head Sir Richard has played down concerns about the taxpayer benefit from the sale and said any investigation was understandable. Sir Richard said: "There is no issue here at all. The NAO will audit any deal, this is a very big deal and that is their job."

The NAO said it will look into how the Government reached its decision on the sell-off.

North MPs have called on the NAO to consider whether returning the bank to its building society roots would have been a better idea.

CAPTION(S):

STAR QUALITY Sir Richard with Newcastle United stars Mike Williamson, Sammy Ameobi and Davide Santon, all wearing the team's new Virgin-branded shirts following a deal announced last week THE NEW BIG PLAYER Sir Richard Branson unveils his Newcastle United shirt at the new Virgin Money bank on Northumberland Street, yesterday
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 10, 2012
Words:657
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