[Update, Feb 27th 2009. The post below was written before Sir Fred became the target of national hostility towards the ‘buy-out’ conditions for quitting his job, and being listed as one of the ‘ten people who caused the credit crisis’]
Sir Fred Goodwin survives the announcement of RBS’s financial losses, giving a bravura performance to the media. To understand his survival prospects we have to look at his track record
Sometimes they go. Sometimes they stay. Leadership survival under pressure remains a fascinating game of guesswork and analysis. At least in part a beleaguered leader has to avoid appearing to be defeated by circumstances. That was the evidence in the very public performance of Sir Fred Goodwin this week [August 8th 2009].
According to Terry Murden in Scotland on Sunday
Announcing the second biggest loss in banking history would mean the sack for most executives ..but RBS’s Sir Fred Goodwin may have pulled off…The multi-national press corps that trooped into the towering London head office of the Royal Bank of Scotland provided a clear reflection of how the company had been transformed from its days as a provincial bit-player in the financial services industry
In defiance of those who have called for his head, and/or that of his chief executive, McKillop showed no sign of standing aside. He said he would be announcing “in a few weeks” some new appointments to the board that were promised at the time of the year-end results announcement. There has been speculation that one of those would be a senior non-executive who would succeed [chairman] McKillop or at least be groomed to replace him.
Goodwin also gave no indication that he was ready to step down. Last week marked his 10th year at the bank, eight as chief executive, which is a relatively long time by modern standards. Questions have been raised about the succession strategy and why, for instance, the bank has no chief operating officer or deputy chief executive. A clearly indignant McKillop refuted suggestions that succession was not on the bank’s agenda. “The board gives a lot of attention to succession. There is a plan being developed and for 18 months we have been working on it,” he said.
With the shares responding positively to the announcement, it was clear that RBS and the board had escaped what was in danger of being banking’s Armageddon. The bank will make a profit for the full year and has already more than replaced the £5.9bn it has lost in toxic credit market writedowns which will not be repeated in the second half of the year.
Sir Fred’s achievements at RBS
Murden gives a brief history of Sir Fred’s achievements. Much followed a glowing biography in Businessweek in 2004. His reputation as a dynamic financial leader. His entrepreneurial flair which has even been coupled to a charge of megalomania, and a public commitment at one stage to avoid the risks of Empire building. His Fred the shred label was explained in the Business week profile of 2004
Goodwin, known in the City as “Fred the Shred” for his vigorous cost-cutting, joined RBS in 1998, as deputy chief executive to Sir George Mathewson, the current chairman. Prior to that, the native of Paisley, Scotland, was CEO at two British banks, Clydesdale Bank PLC and Yorkshire Bank PLC. Before working at the banks, he was a partner at accountants Touche Ross & Co.
At RBS his great early coup was the hostile acquisition of Nat West, agilely executed in 2002.
Forbes Global (April 15, 2002) noted that the acquisition was “brilliantly strategized” by Goodwin, who trumped his competition (Bank of Scotland) with a carefully constructed integration plan that impressed investors and produced great results, including a 27 percent increase in RBS’s profits. Unfortunately, Goodwin had to cut 18,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in costs in the merger, but his dedication to his investors won the day.
Early successes were followed by the controversial role in the acquisition of ABN in 2007. The move was criticized from the start, and remains enough of a burden to be used as a strategy to dislodge a leader by determined shareholder action.
He was Forbes Businessman for 2002 [“an original thinker with a fast-forward frame of mind who had transformed RBS from a nonentity into a global name”], European Banker of the Year in 2003, Knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2004 although the acquisition of Charter One Financial for $10.5bn is criticised as a costly move for growth. This and a 2005 acquisition of a stake in Bank of China was the period where Goodwin is accused of megalomania and he promises not to indulge in any further big acquisitions.
2007 sees the acquisition of ABN Amro with partners Santander and Fortis, the biggest banking takeover in history. 2008 and the credit crisis just about rescued his reputation when the record £12bn rights issue is taken up, prior to this months’ announcement of record half-year losses of £692m.
A Charismatic leader?
Charisma? For some reason the admiring biographic sketches have not made much of that term. Yet his intuitive and buccaneering style with a self-proclaimed reliance on intuition would appear to make him a prime candidate for the epithet. In this, he is also a candidate for illustrating the recently popularised merits of trusting first instincts in decision-making
Ironically, the first article I found mentioning charisma and Sir Freddie was an account of the Spanish executive Ignacio Galan, and contrasting his charisma with (implicitly) that of the RBS leader:
Watching Ignacio Sánchez Galán in full flight, is a sight to behold. The charismatic chairman and chief executive of Iberdrola has a style which just could not be British. Fluid in his delivery, the 57-year-old comfortably boasts during press conferences about turning Iberdrola – a substantial Spanish utility when he joined in 2001 – into the world’s fourth-largest utility, after buying ScottishPower
A less inspired Madrid-based journalist for a leading British newspaper dismisses the head of Iberdrola as “arrogant” but admits his political skills. “He’s seen as a bit of a hero. He plays the role of a buccaneer and a freedom fighter, which isn’t really the case, but he is seen very much as politically neutral, which is unusual here and they love it.”
Early in the Nat West campaign, another commentator had noted that
“in terms of arrogance and single-mindedness, Fred is George [Mathewson , his chairman] with knobs on”. And a fund manager added: “Neither of them is known for their charisma.”
Perhaps a more charismatic leader builds a brand, concealing such human weaknesses as arrogance and ruthlessness. According to Jeff Schubert, who has studied board room tyrants, Napoleon worked diligently to convey his indispensability. Schubert summarises Napoleon’s remarks on his return from the ill-fated Moscow
In meeting with some senior officials, Napoleon’s first words were:
“Well, well, gentlemen, Fortune dazzled me. I let myself be carried away, instead of following the plan I had made and that I spoke of to you. … I had thought to gain in a year what only two campaigns could achieve. I have made a great blunder; but I shall have the means to retrieve it.”
Napoleon later commented to Caulaincourt: “The terrible
bulletin has had its effect, but I see that my presence is giving more pleasure than our disasters give pain.”
We will see whether Sir Fred’s presence as leader continues to give more pleasure than the financials give pain … Several commentators including Gwen Robinson were less sanguine.