THE woman who heads HSBC’s commercial banking team covering 2,500 business customers across Kirklees and Calderdale is confident that the town can continue to demonstrate the entrepreneurial drive that built its fortune.

“We have a great town that’s world-famous,” says Jill Haigh. “It has a skilled workforce and a spirit of enterprise. There are 22,000 students at its university who are really keen to get involved in new ideas and new projects. Let’s use them to help. We did it during the Industrial Revolution. Why can’t we do it now?”

Huddersfield is important to Jill. “I was born in Huddersfield and grew up in Rastrick and my parents still live there,” she says. “I have grown up knowing the local area, which is a huge benefit in what I do.”

Jill joined HSBC’s predecessor, Midland Bank, in 1980 and has done “every job in the bank” working in West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Manchester. “That means no one can pull the wool over my eyes,” she adds.

When Jill was appointed to her current role it meant a return to the branch where she first worked 25 years ago.

In her younger days, Jill took part in pantos with the theatrical society at St Matthew’s Church, Rastrick, where her father was churchwarden. Now, tennis is a major passion and she plays regularly in the Huddersfield league.

Jill met her husband, Keith, when they both worked at the Huddersfield branch 25 years ago. When they married, bank rules said they could not work in the same office, so now he works in Leeds. The couple have a 17-year-old daughter.

Life outside HSBC is also important. “If we are away I like time to relax and switch off because the job demands a huge number of hours during the week,” said Jill. “I work a 60-hour week and can be out two nights a week with the bank, so weekends are very much about family time.”

Some of her leisure time at present is spent reading a book on leadership by Rudolph Guliani who was mayor of New York at the time of 9/11. “I was recommended to read it by Roger Harvey, of Harvey’s department store in Halifax,” says Jill. “It shows how all the expertise and skill in your kitbag comes to the fore when you are in the middle of an emergency. I’m reading it very slowly because it’s fascinating and I don’t want to skim-read any of it.”

As Area Commercial Director for HSBC based in Huddersfield, Jill has to demonstrate leadership skills of her own. She heads a team of more than 30 commercial bankers dealing with about 2,500 commercial business customers in Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Halifax. They range from firms with turnover of about £500,000 to £35m.

Said Jill: “The size of the team is an endorsement of how important this patch is to HSBC. My team has been tasked with building relationships. This year, we have spent 30% more time with our customers than we have historically. In the current climate, the more time we spend with them, the more we can do to help their businesses succeed. “Every week, the team undertake at least 100 face-to-face meetings, so there is a lot of knowledge being shared.”

While banks in general have been criticised for failing to lend to firms fighting the recession, Jill points out: “We're committed to lending to businesses. Our lending strategy hasn't changed; we're keen to lend to strong, viable businesses, as we always have been. We're supporting our customers with their varied financial needs, and we will continue to consider new borrowing requests from businesses across all sectors. In addition to what we're already lending, last year we also announced our own £1bn working capital fund for UK SMEs to support businesses through these challenging times – and around half of this fund has already been allocated."

Jill believes a strong relationship between businesses and their bankers is the key. “I was a relationship manager in the past and it is a fact that the stronger the relationship with your bank and the more you keep the bank appraised – with no nasty surprises – the more likely they are to go with you on the journey.”

And it is a difficult journey at present. “Companies need to assess where they are heading,” says Jill. “We have some businesses that are having a phenomenal year and are actually growing.

“The businesses best placed to succeed are those that have drawn up a strategic plan, looked very carefully at their cost base and taken decisions to put better financial controls in place, looked at their profit margin and productivity.” Jill points out that many people running businesses – and even those advising them – had never faced a recession before and that this recession has been different from previous ones.

“The boom was driven by retailing and property rather than manufacturing. We need to get back to doing something that adds value to GDP – and that means manufacturing. I would love to lend more to companies that are looking to export, this will help the UK come out of recession. We should not go head to head with low cost producing nations but seek to add real value in what we produce”

Jill is adamant that Huddersfield can be among the winners as the recovery takes hold. “Huddersfield is important to the bank because the town has great communication links with the conurbations of Leeds and Manchester and occupies an ideal position of influence between the two major cities,” she says.

“It has a first class university and the splendid Media Centre. Its people have proved they can do great things in areas such as textiles and engineering. Now we need to take that entepreneurial skill and apply it anew.”

Jill believes the town’s economic future depends in no small measure to those companies doing business overseas. “There are great businesses trading with dozens of countries – but they are often companies tucked away on some industrial estate making no fuss about what they do and are just getting on with it.

“Many of our business customers are trading as importers or exporters, which is where we can make a difference. We are the leading international bank in terms of expertise and geographical spread and we can help firms expand into new markets.”

Role: Area commercial director

Age: 47

Family: Married with one daughter

Holidays: City breaks, ski-ing, Hong Kong and Bali

Car: Honda Accord

First job: Office cleaner

Best thing about job: Working with some amazing businesses

Worst thing about job: Seeing a business fail

Business tip: To walk in your customer’s shoes

Work: Banking

Employs: 30

Sites: Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Halifax

Phone: 07786 524353