Washington is Virgin territory for billionaire Sir Richard Branson

Richard Branson with Galleries branch manager Janice Ferguson.
Richard Branson with Galleries branch manager Janice Ferguson.
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BILLIONAIRE Richard Branson turned heads when he made an unexpected visit to a Wearside shopping centre.

Much to the shock of staff and shoppers, the Virgin mogul popped in to The Galleries, in Washington, to check out one of his latest business ventures.

The tycoon’s firm took over nationalised Northern Rock in a £747 million deal and he has been toasting staff and customers in the lender’s North East heartland.

Though it was publicised beforehand that the Virgin boss would visit the former Northern Rock branch in Newcastle’s Northumberland Street, staff were unaware he would call into other branches in the region.

The Galleries centre manager, David McNee, said: “We weren’t aware it was happening at all. He popped in to meet staff and customers and created quite a buzz for a Monday.

“The branch was only re-branded the day before and it’s great that he decided to pop in to check it out. We were delighted.

“He was very chatty and friendly. He chatted to staff and customers in particular.”

The re-branding of Northern Rock’s 75 branches across the country is expected to take nine months.

The famous mogul compared the brand’s move into high street banking with its train operation, saying: “In trains five years ago we had 15 million customers. Five years later we have over 30 million customers and we have done it by putting great new trains on, making sure our staff believe in what they are doing and the train service is being transformed.

“We have done the same with the airline business and with banking we need to get in there and offer great products and make sure they are fair and transparent and people will come to us.”

Virgin Money aims to challenge the banking industry’s “big five” and has claimed its range of saving deals will be “simple, fair and transparent”.

Northern Rock was nationalised and split into “good” and “bad” banks after the disastrous 2007 credit crisis which saw queues of savers line up to withdraw their cash.

Sir Richard said people would be queuing up to come into the bank, rather than to take their money out, as they were four years ago.

A spokesman for Virgin Money said: “Richard Branson wanted to meet and greet some of the people who work at Northern Rock, now Virgin Money and he was delighted to meet staff and customers at the Washington branch.”

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