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Morning Coffee: The HSBC banker who left at the wrong moment. Parisian bankers decide an American boutique is best

Spare a thought for Ewen Stevenson.  After a successful career in investment banking, he decided that he wanted to build a CV that might take him to the very top of the industry.  So he joined RBS (now NatWest) as Chief Financial Officer, then got headhunted to become CFO at HSBC under Noel Quinn.  Everyone saw him as a natural successor, but after four years, Stevenson got restless and asked the board to give him some kind of clarity about how long he might have to wait and how certain they were that the job was his.  This reassurance was not forthcoming. He left in November 2022

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And now it turns out that if he’d only have waited eighteen months, he might have had his answer.  Quinn unexpectedly announced his resignation yesterday. Of course, there are no certainties in banking promotion, and as far as we know Stevenson now has a good job at Serendipity Capital, but it would be surprising if he hadn’t spent a single minute over the last 24 hours thinking about what might have been.

Contemplating Stevenson’s departure gives a bit of perspective on the challenge that HSBC is now presented with.  Quinn ended up thinking that the CEO job (for which he’d gone through a very long audition process) was itself not sufficiently rewarding to be worth the extremely high cost to his own mental energy and family life.  It seems like there’s something particularly unpleasant about being in the top ranks of HSBC.

That thing might be coexisting with chairman Mark Tucker. The Financial Times has spoken to someone who 'knows Tucker well' and who describes him as "dominant" and "not an easy person to work with." If there was going to be a choice of who would go and who would stay, Quinn was always going to be the loser. 

A challenging chair isn't the only issue for HSBC CEOs, though. There's also the travel.  HSBC doesn’t want to give up its UK head office, but it can’t deal with Greater China as if it were a mere provincial overseas office.  Nor is it willing to consider any plan that would split it up.  So the top management team has to be located in two places at once.  Even with HSBC’s long experience of accommodating expats, when your two essential business units are 6000 miles and seven time zones apart, that places demands on the human body and psyche which few can bear for long.

One answer might be to give people the occasional rest.  That might explain why many commentators see George Elhedery as the natural successor. George took a six-month sabbatical in 2022 (starting at around the time that Ewen Stevenson left, and when succession planning might have been on the board’s mind).  And unusually for senior bankers taking sabbaticals, he came back, moving from co-head of investment banking to be the current CFO. 

While Elhedery was on sabbatical, Greg Guyett took over sole leadership of the investment bank, making him another potential contender.  He has rather noticeably decided not to relocate to Hong Kong, but has plenty of experience in the region and has spent a lot of his life on planes (despite being a surprisingly strong advocate of flexible working)

The remaining contenders to replace Quinn include Colin Bell – the head of UK and Europe, whose background in the Army might make him more tolerant of hardship – and Nuno Matos, who will be an experienced globetrotter as a veteran of global wealth management.  Alternatively, maybe Stevenson could be persuaded back? Whoever HSBC finally choose, they are going to need a very ergonomic neck pillow.

Elsewhere, why are bankers going from the Paris office of Lazard to Evercore?  One reason might be “because they know more people there”.  Charles-Henri Fillippi, the co-chair of investment banking in France, is apparently in talks to make the move that MDs Andrea Bozzi and Charles Andrez have already made, with Cassandre Devoir, Charlotte Lefort and Raoul Mansour filling out the junior ranks.  According to “people with knowledge of the matter”, Evercore have a few other targets before they’re through.

Why pick on Lazard to poach French bankers from?  Basically, for the same reason that you buy baguettes from a boulangerie – that’s where they are.  Centerview did the same thing when it took Matthieu Pigasse in 2020, and Lazard’s large franchise and strong reputation mean that it’s likely to be the natural first part of call for other firms wishing to staff up for a while to come. 

Meanwhile …

Weiss Multi-Strategy Advisors is closing down, but there appears to be some legal wrangling over the bonuses paid to staff shortly before bankruptcy. Jefferies claims that they shouldn’t have been paid; Weiss seems to be saying that Jefferies used the threat of legal action to get an advantage as a creditor.  Employees must be looking on in horror and wondering if they can keep the money. (Bloomberg)

The London deal drought continues to weigh on the market.  Stifel has put 15 staff at risk…(Financial News)

… while this year’s partner class at Clifford Chance is considerably reduced in size. (Financial News)

As well as “Tubthumping”, McKinsey partners were fired up at their offsite with “tracks by Eminem and Bob Marley”.  This presumably means “Theme from 8 Mile”, as the only remotely appropriate Eminem track for a professional setting, but which Marley classic?  “Exodus”, to remind them of the job cuts? “Three Little Birds”, to remind them that everything’s going to be all right?  Or more likely “Get Up, Stand Up”, as managing partner Bob Sternfels apparently said that “I hope we shout out. I hope we engage. I hope we wrestle with stuff together.” (Business Insider)

Another Japanese rates trader heads for the buy-side as the market springs back to life; Yoichi Takemura is going from JPMorgan to Garda Capital Partners. (Bloomberg)

The big tech industry are behaving almost like bankers; Apple have been on a hiring spree, mainly poaching from Google in order to build up a top secret European lab in Zurich to get their AI project going again. (FT)

Changpeng Zhao of Binance is likely to be the richest person ever to go to jail. (Bloomberg)

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AUTHORDaniel Davies Insider Comment

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