Smith gets top job at Hang Seng Bank

Co-inciding with Michael Smith''s new appointment at Hang Seng Bank, we reprint a recent profile from FinanceAsia magazine.

Michael Smith has to rank as the first banker profiled in FinanceAsia to successfully survive an assassination attempt. Currently chief executive of HSBC in Asia he had his brush with death while running the British bank's Argentinian operations, and still has the leg wound to prove it.

A fairly unflappable character, Smith talks about the incident with what some might describe as an offhand manner. The incident occurred when the bank uncovered a corporate fraud in Buenos Aires and the said company hired a team of assassins to eliminate Smith as he was driving home. With some presence of mind, Smith reacted to the first shooting by accelerating the Jaguar out of trouble, but as bullets sprayed through the door, his leg was hit and he was immediately taken to hospital.

Not surprisingly, Smith recalls that his five and a half years in Argentina were "difficult". He was there during the 2001 peso crisis, when the country was falling apart, and foreign banks were being attacked by domestic interests. "Part of the problem was that I refused to be intimidated," says Smith. He can recall having his passport seized by a judge, and replying, "That's okay - I'll just get another one. They were used to people buckling. And of the major banks there was only us and Citi who refused to play the game."

He believes his tactics saved the bank a lot of money in Argentina although he freely admits it was not a happy time professionally. When the revaluation exercise occurred, a different rate was applied to assets and liabilities. "As a result I suddenly found myself with a $600 million hole in my balance sheet."

Moreover, he had a team of eight bodyguards and recalls being sent photographs of his daughter getting out of a car with a threatening message attached. He eventually sent her to a boarding school in England. In this chaos, not unsurprisingly, the legal system was out of control with companies, individuals and banks suing and counter-suing each other. When he left Buenos Aires he had 5400 civil cases against him in his capacity as the head of the bank.

But difficult though the situation was, Smith says his career at HSBC had been the best preparation a banker could have had. Indeed, the old international officer culture had been designed to prepare staff for crisis management.

He joined the bank in 1978 straight from university - recalling he was vetted for the job via a rugby match for the bank's London branch. Desperate to leave a country which was mired by strikes, three day weeks and streets littered with uncollected dustbags, he exchanged the UK for Hong Kong.

Smith says his first job was to bounce cheques. "It was highly stressful. You had 4000 doubtful accounts to deal with per day and you had to decide which ones you would bounce by 12.30pm, by which time sweat was pouring off the brow," he says.

He would bounce cheques by day, and by night he and the other international officers would live in the old Cloudlands officers' mess on the Peak (since knocked down and redeveloped). "It was a bit like boarding school," he smiles, "except that you had your own private bathroom and the wine list was somewhat better."

After six months of bouncing cheques, he was promoted to run current accounts for the branch. "I was 22 and suddenly I was in charge of 200 people. I remember spending every waking hour reading manuals to learn every part of the job."

In those days it was sink or swim, and Smith emerged from the experience with a thorough grounding in basic banking. His next posting, at the ripe age of 23, was to run the entire branch in the Solomon Islands.

"We had two telephones, no computers and I would have to figure out the assets and liabilities manually with a calculator. The advantage of this was I learned the ins and outs of a balance sheet in a sort of banking 101," he says.

It was not, however, a dynamic market, as he freely admits. "The staff would go off on holiday to their respective islands and forget how many days they'd been away. No one had telephones, so you'd have to make an announcement on the local radio that so-and-so was due back at work, at which point they would probably return."

After his somewhat isolated time in the Solomon Islands, Smith was given three months home leave in the UK and got married (although only with the bank's permission, since - in a hangover from colonial practices - the bank could still veto the young bachelor's marital aspirations).

His first posting as a married man was a stint in Oman where he describes his job as being "effectively a private banker to the Sultan". It was a pleasant living environment for the couple, but his next posting definitely topped it.

In 1985 the Australian market remained remarkably closed to foreign banks. But recent deregulation meant that foreign banks could then apply for banking licenses. Smith was put in charge of the team tasked with getting HSBC a license, which he succeeded in doing. In the five years that followed, Smith and his wife, Maria would have two children in Australia and he would successively run the New South Wales and Victoria operations. Aside from having to deal with Australian sporting victories against his native land, the ‘pom' found the country very amenable.

His next posting was the UK, where he was seconded into Midland Bank's planning department ahead of HSBC's takeover of the ailing UK bank.

Smith had a miserable time, forced to work in a totally undynamic organization that had long lost its way and was managed by committee. All his native talents were lost in Midland. Luckily, when HSBC finally went through with the takeover two years later, he was given the more interesting job of managing all of Midland's international operations and merging them with HSBC's.

After he succeeded with this, he was sent to Malaysia in 1994 to be deputy CEO. The operation, he recalls, needed shaking up. He reckons that if HSBC hadn't acted pre-emptively the problems the bank would have faced in 1997-98 would have been considerably more severe.

His reward for his successes in Malaysia - and likewise thanks to HSBC's rapid and acquisitive expansion in Latin America - was to be made CEO of Argentina.

He says the time in Argentina naturally made him harder and more callous and this was a necessary survival instinct. But when he came to end of his tenure there he requested a sabbatical in which he could re-acclimatize with the more normal business world via stints at Harvard Business School, INSEAD and in placements with a couple of high tech firms in Silicon Valley.

However, when he got back to London, HSBC's then CEO Keith Whitson said head office was in a royal mess and told him that he needed his "firefighting skills" to sort it out. His much-cherished sabbatical went out of a very high Canary Wharf window, never to reappear again.

However, just deserts were justly remitted when Smith was then promoted to become CEO of HSBC's Asian operations, replacing the retiring Aman Mehta.

After a career in which shaking things up has become the norm, the staff in Asia are just getting used to their tough new taskmaster - whose attention to detail tests all: "I am currently trying to cut down some of our longwinded mortgage documentation to a more sensible level," he notes towards the end of dinner.

¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
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