Could Barclays tempt Mike Smith?

It's easy to see why Mike Smith would be a forerunning candidate to replace Bob Diamond, but would Barclays be as good a fit for the ANZ chief?

ANZ’s board and management will be monitoring the search by Barclays for a successor to discredited former chief executive Bob Diamond with some trepidation, after The Wall Street Journal nominated its chief executive, Mike Smith, as one of the prospective candidates for the role.

Diamond was forced to resign as Barclays chief executive after the big UK bank was caught up in the Libor-rigging scandal and forced to pay a £290 million ($A440 million) fine by US and UK regulators.

The scandal has destabilised the bank, with its chairman, Marcus Agius, resigning one day and then, after Diamond was forced to fall on his sword, announcing he would become a full-time chairman and oversee the search for a successor the very next day.

A couple of internal candidates have been named as possible replacements, along with Bill Winters, the former number two at JP Morgan and head of its investment bank. Winters was a member of the UK’s Vickers independent commission on banking. Smith, however, is an interesting name to have been thrown into the mix.

One would assume, given the controversies Diamond generated and Barclays is embroiled in, that the bank will want an outsider and a cleanskin. Because a central cause of concern within the UK about Barclays relates to its size and complexity and the scale of the investment banking activities Diamond built, one assumes the preference will be for a traditional banker.

Smith ticks a lot of boxes. He is of UK origin but held senior positions with HSBC in a number of regions around the world before joining ANZ. Indeed, immediately prior to being appointed chief executive of ANZ in 2007 he had been head of Asia’s largest banking network and also global head of HSBC’s commercial business. He is vastly experienced and regarded as an old-fashioned "banker’s banker".

Having spent the past five years in Australia with ANZ, he has no baggage from the financial crisis – and the fact that he is a traditional banker rather than someone with an investment banking background would, in the circumstances, probably be seen as a major plus. His reputation for toughness and directness would also be positives.

In other words, it is easy to see why his name would figure in the speculation.

ANZ, however, is Smith’s work-in-progress.

When he was appointed he was clearly over-qualified for the bank at the time but the fact that he was appointed was a pointer to the bank’s and his ambitions.

Since then, of course, ANZ has embarked on a measured Asian expansion strategy – a "super-regional" strategy – and now generates about 20 per cent of its revenues from its Asia Pacific, Europe and America division.

Without more acquisitions – and Smith has been very selective and disciplined in the acquisitions he has been prepared to make – the goal of generating 30 per cent of the group’s earnings from the APEA business by 2017 will be difficult.

Nevertheless, ANZ has the foundations of a growth business within Asia and Smith has built up a senior team with deep experience in the region in expectation of that growth.

The Barclays’ role, by contrast, would be a shrink-and-restructure job in a bleak UK economic environment and in an atmosphere hostile to bankers. There might be some prestige associated with being chief executive of what was one of the most globally significant banks, but Barclays today has a market capitalisation about half that of ANZ.

Because Smith is the architect of ANZ’s super-regional strategy and because that strategy has yet to reach any form of maturity, it would be a major blow to the group if it were to lose Smith at this stage. It has a range of senior executives who could be a CEO but none with both the vast experience of the region and the level of seniority and range of high-level contacts Smith brought with him.

No one is irreplaceable but in ANZ’s circumstances today Smith goes close.

Related Articles