Insurance Midas gets shot at big time

Editorial | Mary Ma Mar 16, 2017
AIA chief executive Mark Tucker, pictured, will parachute into the chairmanship of HSBC Holdings this year in a move that is unconventional and shows something is afoot at the London-based bank, Europe's largest lender.

Throughout HSBC's 152-year history, the most senior positions were filled by bankers promoted internally - with names in the past three decades being William Purves, John Bond, Stephen Green, Douglas Flint, Michael Geoghegan, and Stuart Gulliver.

All of them were groomed to become chairman or chief executive at different stages.

However, the 59-year-old Tucker is a total outsider, although he was born, raised and educated in Britain.

The tradition of filling top positions internally at HSBC has always been a subject of debate between top management and key investors, who like to see outside expertise being tapped to transform a behemoth that is in danger of becoming a dinosaur.

The tradition was upheld during the last reshuffle that confirmed Flint and Gulliver as chairman and chief executive.

Although the homegrown duo succeeded in downsizing the group, the share price has been sluggish as its peers outperformed. And while many global banks have emerged stronger from the doldrums of the financial crisis, HSBC has failed to do the same - and this is an unforgiveable sin.

Poor corporate results presented a perfect opportunity for tradition to be given the ultimate heave-ho.

Outsider Tucker will take over the group as chairman-designate in September, before officially replacing Flint as chairman in October. He will also be responsible for picking someone to be his right-hand man (or woman), to succeed Gulliver as chief executive.

Some internal names have been floated, but Tucker will likely choose one from outside. If that happens, HSBC is in for a fundamental shift in management culture at HSBC.

Tucker, currently living in Hong Kong, is effectively accepting a pay cut to take up the job, as he will be getting only 1.5 million (HK$14.2 million) annually, in addition to standard benefits - whereas he earned up to HK$77 million a year at AIA.

However, money is apparently no longer a priority for the former trainee professional footballer. Rather, it's the prestige of leading a major global bank that tickles his fancy.

Given his track record as a tough competitor and insurance leader known for his attention to detail, will Tucker be a hands-on chairman after Purves, who had led the group through rapid expansion during his stewardship from 1986 to 1998?

That's something for investors to keep their eyes on.

Tucker's major task isn't only to make HSBC profitable, but for profitability to be reflected in the share price, which closed yesterday in its birthplace at HK$63.70, up 0.3 percent.

Despite a strong performance in its Asia business, HSBC's overall return on equity slumped to less than 1 percent last year, compared to 7.6 percent the year before, and embarrassingly short of the bank's long-term target of 10 percent.

Tucker is renowned for taking AIA - the largest independent publicly-listed, pan-Asian life insurance group - through its October 2010 initial public offering, to more than doubling its market value, which currently tops HK$584 billion.

Time will tell if he can apply the same magic to turn HSBC's fortunes around to profit growth.

His loss to AIA can pose an immediate challenge for the insurer, although it may be argued that nobody is indispensable, as one person's departure could mean another person's opportunity.

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June 2018