Wanted: CEO for UK Retail Bank

With the news that the RBS Retail Bank CEO, Brian Hartzer is to return to his native Australia to take up a similar role with Westpac and to be groomed as Gail Kelly’s replacement, he is but just one more executive to leave UK Retail Banking. He follows Deanne Oppenheimer (Barclays returning to her native Seattle – see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2011/09/resignation-of-deanna-oppenheimer-end.html ), Helen Weir (Lloyds Banking Group – left when Antonio Horta-Osorio joined as CEO), Lynne Peacock (NAB), Joy Griffiths (Lloyds Banking Group – left retail banking to become CEO of Experian Analytics – see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2011/02/joy-griffiths-leaves-lloyds-banking.html ) and Andy Hornby (HBoS – though whether this was a loss for Retail Banking is far less apparent).

Without resorting to the over-used Oscar Wilde quote, to lose this many Retail Banking CEOs does not look to be just chance. What is it that is driving these talented executives to leave UK Retail Banking?

Certainly retail banking in the UK is becoming one of the most heavily scrutinised and regulated banking sectors anywhere in the world. This is leading to executives spending more and more of their time talking to regulators and politicians rather than spending their time on running their business. The ability for talented executives to make a difference, to reinvent the industry and to service their customers in a way that they deserve to be treated is becoming increasingly difficult.

The leadership of the banks is also changing. Whereas the likes of Lloyds TSB, Barclays and HSBC used to be led by executives, such as Sir Brian Pitman, who had risen through the ranks of retail banking and understood the industry, the UK banks are now all led by former investment bankers, who are not passionate about retail banking, for whom serving the consumer and the small business is not second nature and whose vision for their banks is articulated in terms of aggressive ROI targets, which leaves the traditional retail banking executive spending large proportions of their time educating and managing their bosses about the business of retail banking rather than being able to focus on their customers.

It is also true to say that not many people nowadays would want to admit at social events that they are a banker, not if they don’t want to end up on their own for the evening! The prolonged pillorying of bankers undoubtedly has an impact on individuals however thick-skinned they may be. In other geographies the role of the banker is far more respected and prestigious.
For the ex-pats who have joined the UK banking sector, and even for many British citizens, the changes in the bonus systems and the introduction of the 50% income tax band have all made the UK a far less attractive place to work and therefore, where there is a choice, moving abroad or back home can be very attractive. Whilst only a few years ago the tax regime in Australia appeared to be more onerous than the UK that situation has been reversed and for both Brian Hartzer and, even more so for Deanne Oppenheimer, going home has significant financial advantages.

Brian Hartzer isn’t going to be leaving RBS for a while but who are the potential candidates to replace him? Already the speculation has started.  Will a UK-based candidate be found? Could we see the return of Mark Fisher from Lloyds Banking Group back to Edinburgh? It is very unlikely that we will see the return of Helen Weir, Lynne Peacock, Deanne Oppenheimer or Joy Griffths. Of the up and coming executives Nigel Hinshelwood, COO of HSBC UK, must be in the running, but given the nationalised, increasingly UK-focused nature of RBS would that be an attractive option?

Given that any UK-based executive knows what the UK retail banking market has become maybe the easiest option for RBS is to look abroad and for their next Retail Banking CEO.

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