No substitute for on-the ground experience: HSBC's incoming CEO

HONG KONG • John Flint knew from the age of 15 that he wanted to be a banker at HSBC, after asking his school headmaster for advice.

More than three decades later, and to nobody's real surprise within the bank, Mr Flint has been chosen as its chief executive.

Mr Flint says his headmaster introduced him to the CEO of the bank in Indonesia, who advised him to get a degree and join as an "international officer".

"So that's what I did - and I was accepted," he was quoted as saying in an HSBC internal memo following the announcement of his appointment on Thursday.

Armed with a degree in economics from Portsmouth Polytechnic rather than one of Britain's more prestigious universities, Mr Flint joined HSBC in 1989 and trained in Hong Kong and Calcutta.

The Yorkshire-born executive's approach to business is exemplified by moves like his visit last year to potential customers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in China at their homes in order to find out about their wealth and banking needs.

"There is no substitute for first-hand, on-the-ground experience if you are curious and want to understand the wider world," Mr Flint was quoted as saying in the memo.

That trait will come in handy for the new chief executive of Europe's biggest bank, as it looks to meet the expectations of regulators, shareholders and customers, while also growing profits again following a period of restructuring.

The 49-year old, who runs HSBC's retail and wealth management business, its largest business unit, will take over as CEO in February next year when Mr Stuart Gulliver, 58, retires after seven years in the job.

From bolstering the bank's pivot towards Asia - which is centred on China's Pearl River Delta region - with billions in investments to beefing up digital capabilities and retail banking footprint in key markets, Mr Flint has been central to many of Mr Gulliver's recent strategy decisions.

Analysts expect little change in the focus of the bank, which makes more than half of its profits in Asia, but is facing growing competition from local as well as global peers.

Mr Flint, who is married with two children, has so far maintained a low public profile.

Interviews he has given have focused on the future of banking. He told Reuters last year that due to the financial crisis, the industry had fallen behind other sectors when it came to embracing new technology.

"We've been a bit distracted. The industry pretty much failed and then we've been in remediation mode and fix mode ever since," he said.

Mr Flint spent the first 14 years of his career with HSBC in Asia, helping to establish and expand the bank's markets business, before moving back to London in 2004.

Before becoming the chief executive of retail banking and wealth management in 2013, he worked across different functions that included group treasurer, head of global asset management business and head of strategy and planning.

Analysts said HSBC's push into Asia, and mainly China, could have influenced the selection of Mr Flint.

"It's been very much about continuity, they have been successful, they continue to be highly profitable as banks go. So why are you going to change something that works?" said EY's Asia financial services lead Keith Pogson.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2017, with the headline 'No substitute for on-the ground experience: HSBC's incoming CEO'. Print Edition | Subscribe