HSBC Picks Boxer Turned Risk-Manager Gulliver as CEO

As the credit crisis mounted in 2008, Stuart Gulliver moved from his executive office on the 42nd story of HSBC Holdings Plc’s London office to the trading floor on the fourth so he could oversee his employees directly.

Gulliver, named chief executive officer last week, worked his way up over 30 years from treasury department roles in London and Asia, where he learned to manage funding, liquidity and interest-rate holdings. That training in risk helped him steer HSBC’s traders through the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s and allowed the securities unit he oversees to survive the subprime bubble with smaller losses than competitors including Barclays Capital.

“He’s not a massive wheeler-dealer or risk taker,” said Simon Maughan, an analyst at MF Global Ltd. in London, who has tracked the industry for more than 15 years and has a “neutral” rating on HSBC. “He was in charge of protecting and making the most without risking HSBC’s balance sheet.”

Gulliver, who made HSBC’s investment bank into its fastest- growing unit, is counting on those risk-management skills to reassure investors about his appointment following the departures of CEO Michael Geoghegan and Chairman Stephen Green in the biggest management shakeup in the bank’s 145-year history. HSBC is the worst-performing U.K. bank stock this year, trailing Barclays Plc and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.

“You should not expect a significant change,” Gulliver, 51, told reporters on a conference call last week. “It’s important to take away from this that the processes that Mike has started and Stephen has started I will continue.”

Oxford Boxer

HSBC spokesman Adrian Russell declined to make Gulliver available for an interview.

Staying still may not be enough. Gulliver, a boxer at Oxford University, faces calls from investors to boost revenue from Asia, where it lags behind competitor Standard Chartered Plc.

“He needs to do more to consolidate the revenue that the bank gets from Asia,” said Richard Hunter, head of U.K. equities at Hargreaves Lansdown Plc, a London-based asset manager and stockbroker. “Over the longer term that is where you are going to see the better growth opportunities.”

HSBC earned about 30 percent of its revenue from Asia last year, compared with 36 percent in Europe and 20 percent from North America. Standard Chartered makes 67 percent of its revenue from Asia.

HSBC Shares Down

“What always worries me on HSBC is the lack of growth and the lack of real emerging market growth because the bank is still more exposed to Western markets than Eastern markets,” said Arturo de Frias, an analyst at Evolution Securities Ltd. in London. “That is what will have to change for HSBC to do really, really well.”

HSBC dropped 6.8 percent in London trading this year, making it the worst performing U.K. bank stock this year. By comparison, RBS has risen 67 percent, Lloyds Banking Group Plc has gained 50 percent, Barclays has climbed 13 percent and Standard Chartered advanced 21 percent in the last nine months. HSBC fell 0.8 percent at 10:42 a.m. in Hong Kong today, giving it a market value of 116 billion pounds ($184 billion).

Gulliver also faces a British government inquiry into the industry that may recommend banks separate their investment banking units from their consumer divisions. He threatened this month to move HSBC’s headquarters out of the U.K. if the government decides to break up the banks.

Robert Diamond

Gulliver was the second investment banker to be named CEO of a U.K. bank in a month after Barclays promoted Robert Diamond on Sept. 7, a decision that prompted criticism from politicians including Business Secretary Vince Cable and sent the stock down 3 percent that day. HSBC rose 0.4 percent the day Gulliver was appointed, and he escaped the political attacks that greeted Diamond.

Diamond was in his mid-40s when he was hired by Barclays’s then-CEO Martin Taylor to run the investment bank, which was called Barclays de Zoete Wedd, or BZW, at the time. Diamond was one of a group of people who left Credit Suisse First Boston earlier in the year and has said that even before he joined Barclays he had made so much money that “I didn’t need to work again.”

Gulliver, by contrast, joined HSBC after graduating from Oxford in 1980 with a law degree. He has stayed at the bank his entire career.

On the Road

In the tradition of HSBC bankers whose careers can sometimes resemble foreign-office diplomats, Gulliver served early stints in far-flung offices from Kuala Lumpur to the United Arab Emirates. By the age of 28, he was running HSBC’s London dealing room, and seven years later was responsible for 19 dealing rooms across Asia.

Gulliver took over the bank’s treasury functions in 1994. At the time, each country in Asia managed its treasury needs separately, said Mike Powell, who worked at HSBC for 23 years and ran the trading business under Gulliver before leaving in 2008. Gulliver pushed to integrate the treasury businesses across borders to help the bank better manage its risk exposures throughout the region, Powell said.

“That became absolutely key during the financial crisis in ’98,” Powell said. “Many people can see risks, but they’re not good at executing and the thing about Stuart is that he’s very good at getting things done.”

In 2003, Gulliver was named head of HSBC’s global corporate, investment banking and markets division with John Studzinski, who departed in 2006, leaving Gulliver in sole charge of the global investment banking and trading business. Studzinski left HSBC after the firm moved his debt and stock underwriting responsibilities to Gulliver.

Highest Paid

Revenue at Gulliver’s global corporate, investment banking and markets division almost doubled to $21.9 billion last year from $11.5 billion in 2005, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The unit’s operating income jumped to $10.1 billion from $4.9 billion in the period.

“He is smart and very competitive, and in spite of his treasury and markets roots, the bank’s DNA runs right through him,” said Martin Cubbon, CEO of Hong Kong developer Swire Properties Ltd., who has known Gulliver since the late 1980s.

Gulliver was HSBC’s highest paid executive director in 2009, receiving a 9 million-pound bonus on top of his 800,000 pound salary, according to HSBC’s 2009 annual report. His payout dwarfed the 4 million-pound bonus Geoghegan, 57, received. Geoghegan, who is quitting HSBC at the end of the year after 37 years, donated his bonus to charity, while Gulliver kept his. Green declined a bonus.

Lehman Sidestepped

HSBC fared better than many competitors during the credit crisis after Gulliver cut its exposure to the banking industry in 2006 and minimized its dealings with Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in the months before the U.S. bank’s collapse.

Since 2007, HSBC has had impairments of about $5.2 billion at its investment banking unit, led by Gulliver. That is almost half the level of losses reported by Diamond’s Barclays Capital.

Gulliver “aggressively made sure that HSBC had sufficient liquidity to fund its operations,” Powell said. “A lot of this stuff we prepped in Asia. We saw it in the Asian market and the financial crisis was a replay on a bigger scale.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Gavin Finch in London at gfinch@bloomberg.net; Andrew MacAskill in London at amacaskill@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Evans at eevans3@bloomberg.net

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