Noel Quinn was on his way to Heathrow airport when he received an unexpected phone call. The chairman of HSBC, Mark Tucker, wanted to see him before he caught his flight to New York. During that meeting he learnt that his boss, John Flint, was being ousted as chief executive after losing the confidence of the bank’s directors. The board wanted Mr Quinn to step in on an interim basis.
When HSBC announced Mr Quinn’s appointment in August, most HSBC investors assumed he would serve as an understudy before handing over to a full-time replacement recruited from outside the bank. But he has been auditioning for the permanent part with gusto: this week, the Financial Times reported that he had started work on an efficiency drive that threatens up to 10,000 jobs as he seeks to attack a bloated cost base that has plagued the bank for years.
Temperamentally, he could not be more different to his predecessor, Mr Flint, a cerebral introvert, with few acolytes, who seemed at times to be overwhelmed by the demands of the job. Colleagues describe Mr Quinn, who speaks with a broad Birmingham accent, as a jovial executive with a sometimes blunt style that has earned him a loyal following, both inside the company and among clients of the commercial bank, where he has spent most of his career.
The 57-year-old is a company “lifer” who joined the lender in 1987 via a subsidiary of Midland Bank, which was subsequently taken over by HSBC. But he does not conform to type in a bank that is sometimes unfavourably compared to the UK civil service, owing to the number of bankers who hail from the British establishment.
Whereas a large number of HSBC bankers were educated at Oxford or Cambridge, Mr Quinn studied at Birmingham Polytechnic before training as a chartered accountant with Grant Thornton. He was about to take an accountancy job in Canada when a headhunter suggested he tried a career in banking instead.
Colleagues repeatedly describe him as “normal”. Outside work, he supports Aston Villa Football Club in the Premier League, and England in international competitions unless Ireland are playing (in homage to his parents’ heritage). To relax, he plays golf and takes walks near the family home in Surrey that he shares with his wife, with whom he has three adult children. Peaky Blinders, a television drama about the eponymous Birmingham gang, is his favourite show.
“He doesn’t have a high-falutin background,” said Alan Keir, a former HSBC executive who used to be Mr Quinn’s boss, and who now sits on the board of its ringfenced UK unit. “He’s clever, honest and straight. There are many others at the bank who are less able but more polished than Noel.”
Mr Quinn started his career at HSBC in leasing, but it was at the commercial bank — which mainly deals with corporate clients with turnover of less than $1bn — that he made his mark as a relationship banker, first as regional head in Hong Kong and latterly as global chief executive of the division. The commercial bank is the lender’s biggest profit generator, contributing $7.7bn in adjusted pre-tax profits last year, about 35 per cent of the total
Allan Zeman, the Hong Kong real estate developer and longtime HSBC client, said: “You look at him at first and you think he’s maybe not the right kind of guy for that position, but the more I’ve thought about it he knows the bank well. I can imagine they might want someone who has more finesse but I think he could do a good job.”
Mr Zeman, who knew Mr Quinn when he ran the commercial bank in Hong Kong, also believes he can get along with the bank’s hard-charging chairman — unlike Mr Flint, who repeatedly clashed with his boss. “Mark Tucker can be difficult sometimes and I think Noel knows how to navigate through that.”
When Mr Quinn was announced as interim chief, some investors were sceptical that he was a good fit for the permanent role, fearing that he lacked the razor-sharp instincts of his predecessor-but-one, Stuart Gulliver. But in recent weeks, Mr Quinn has worked hard to change their minds.
“He’s acting like the CEO and my hunch is he’ll get it: he looks and feels like Tucker’s guy,” said one top 20 shareholder, who cautioned that Mr Quinn still needed to demonstrate that he has a granular understanding of the bank’s complex finances.
If Mr Quinn does win the job, he will end up leading a bank with considerable challenges. In addition to cutting costs, he will have to decide what to do with the lender’s flailing US operation, as well as other regions where it underperforms (the French retail bank is already up for sale). And he must navigate escalating tensions in Asia — where HSBC generates 80 per cent of profits — including the US-China trade war and protests in Hong Kong. The bank’s ringfenced operation in the UK would suffer in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Quinn will also have to convince Mr Tucker to opt for an insider again — no mean feat given that the appointment of Mr Flint, an HSBC veteran with three decades at the bank, proved to be such a disaster.
“He’s certainly going for it, that I can tell you,” said one HSBC executive of Mr Quinn’s campaign to win the permanent role. “The jungle drums internally say he might well land it, but it is far from in the bag.”