HSBC: Flint will need to find his spark

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HSBC’s next chief executive must quickly show he’s the man to take the bank forward.

John Flint has risen without trace. That’s at least how it might seem to many outside HSBC. In a near 30-year career at the bank, its CEO-in-waiting has flown largely under the radar. Now he’s firmly in the sights of its shareholders, its employees and its itchy new chairman.

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John Flint, HSBC
Flint was always the insiders’ choice and favourite for the role once Stuart Gulliver had announced his intention to step down. He fits the mould of previous CEOs of the bank – a lifer who has experience in many of the main business lines.

He built his reputation in two key stints – as group treasurer during the global financial crisis and as head of strategy and chief of staff to Gulliver when he was early in his tenure as chief executive. As such, Flint helped formulate a way forward for the bank, which is clearly paying dividends today.

No one within HSBC has a bad word to say about Flint. He is liked and respected. He’s bright, but personable. He knows the bank inside out. He’ll be a good partner for new chairman Mark Tucker, the first outsider to take that role in the bank’s history, they say. 

Vision

But what’s his vision for the bank? That’s not clear. He’s been dealt a good hand by Gulliver – HSBC is a much better organised bank than at any time in the past 20 years. It is focused. Its pivot to Asia will pay dividends. After the biggest reorganization in its history, HSBC is starting to grow revenues again.

Can Flint come in on a ticket of ‘more of the same’? That would be rather underwhelming, and doesn’t tally with the ambitions of Tucker. There’s his more recent history at the bank: the achievements of the divisions he has been responsible for since 2013, retail banking and wealth management, have been almost as anonymous as Flint himself, at least in comparison to the forward strides made by HSBC’s investment and commercial banking divisions. 

And then there’s perhaps the biggest question of all: who is really running the show? Tucker is nominally the non-executive chairman, but he’s ever-present within the bank and is clearly more than just the chairman of the board. Some think he’ll set the strategy and be the public leader of the bank, and Flint will be the man to execute it. That would make Flint more of a chief operating officer than chief executive. 

Tucker has said: “John needs to take a step back and think of the priorities.” Tucker will be looking over his shoulder, perhaps pointing the directions. And HSBC’s employees will be intrigued to see what he comes up with, and what kind of leader he will be.