New leadership: John Flint, left, is expected to prove ‘a good foil’ to chairman Mark Tucker © FT montage / Bloomberg
To some HSBC investors and former colleagues, John Flint is a “safe pair of hands” and a “very solid choice” to be the bank’s next chief executive. Others describe the 49-year-old as the “John Major of banking” — citing the former UK prime minister as a way to illustrate his studious and low-key style.
Two big questions being asked by investors and analysts after Mr Flint’s appointment was unveiled on Thursday are: what kind of partnership will he form with new chairman Mark Tucker and what does the new leadership duo mean for the bank’s strategy?
“The first priority is to work out a modus operandi between the two of them,” says a top 20 shareholder in HSBC. “Then they have to clarify the strategy and of course one assumes and hopes that it will be along the same lines, with maybe some slight changes of emphasis.”
Mr Flint is variously described as thoughtful, studious and humble. “He has tremendous integrity,” says a former colleague. His 28-year career at HSBC has included the crucial role of treasurer during the financial crisis of 2008. “His appointment gives hopes to treasurers everywhere,” says one banker who knows him well.
Unlike many superstar bank bosses, he studied economics at a polytechnic — now Portsmouth University — and is not particularly gregarious. “He is not a people person,” says one banker who has worked closely with Mr Flint.
Colleagues say he was often the quietest person in a room of senior managers. “He is not one to go out for beers after work — he doesn’t let his hair down,” says one person who knows him well.
Mr Flint also seems to have steered clear of HSBC’s internal politics and is well liked throughout the bank. “I doubt he has a single enemy there,” says a former colleague.
He also keeps a low profile outside the bank and has done little to cultivate a public image. He once told a colleague that his favourite job had been head of balance sheet management, which he appreciated for its “intellectual rigour”.
Some observers believe the board’s decision to continue its 150-year tradition of appointing chief executives from within its ranks is a sign that it will stick broadly to the current strategy shaped by CEO Stuart Gulliver and former chairman Douglas Flint, who is not related to John.
However, analysts still expect the direct and hard-driving Mr Tucker to put his own stamp on the lender after becoming its first externally appointed chairman at the start of this month. He previously spent eight years overseeing rapid growth at Asian insurer AIA.
He has told investors that HSBC, as a bank with a big presence in fast-growing economies of Asia, should have a higher return on equity than the 8.8 per cent it achieved in the first half of the year.
“It is a big organisation and having outsiders in both roles would have been a radical move, which would have signalled that no one internally was up to the job,” says Ronit Ghose, banks analyst at Citigroup.
BA (Economics) from Portsmouth Polytechnic
Years with HSBC
Countries worked in
Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Bahrain, US, UK
Mr Flint and Mr Tucker barely knew each other before the chairman was named to his post earlier this year. The two men have recently had several hastily arranged dinners to remedy that.
Former colleagues and investors predict that Mr Tucker is likely to act more like an executive chairman, leaving Mr Flint to oversee operations and put the strategy into action. “John will be a good foil for Mark,” said one.
“It will be a combination of change and continuity,” says Mr Ghose, adding: “Mark Tucker will be quite a hands-on chairman and I’m sure he will lead from the front. He is experienced and has deep knowledge of Asia and Hong Kong, so he can be the change agent.”
Mr Flint grew up in Yorkshire in the early 1970s before moving at the age of seven to Saudi Arabia where his father was a university professor. He returned to Yorkshire to attend Giggleswick boarding school at the age of 12.
A keen sportsman — and a competitive swimmer as a youngster — Mr Flint has done several triathlons and “iron man” races, though he pleads that the pressures of work over the past nine years have given him next to no free time.
In a memo to staff on Thursday, Mr Flint recalled the start of his HSBC career: “I asked my headmaster at school for advice,” he said. “He introduced me to his friend Alistair Cooke, who was at the time CEO of HongkongBank, as HSBC was then known, in Indonesia.”
A few years later, after he had earned his degree, Mr Flint was accepted into the bank’s “international officer” programme, which fast-tracks promising graduates by rotating them through a series of challenging roles around the globe.
Mr Flint showed a keen eye for risk when, as treasurer, he raised the alarm about the state of markets and called for the bank to increase its liquidity levels on the eve of the financial crisis in July 2007. With regulators again growing concerned about the build-up of risks in the financial system, Mr Flint may soon have those instincts tested like never before.
Additional reporting by Henny Sender in Hong Kong