A victory for the grey suits

Martin Taylor's departure from Barclays has thrown the bank's international strategy up into the air. Peter Koenig reports
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The Independent Online
WHY so fast? Why did Martin Taylor all but walk out of Barclays Bank's Lombard Street head office on Thursday night singing the country & western working man's anthem, "You can take this job and shove it"?

On Friday morning, Barclays non-executive director Sir Nigel Mobbs explained: "Once you've made a decision to leave, it's difficult to stay. You lose authority."

But not stay at all? Doesn't a transition period make sense?

"One can do it that way," Sir Nigel replied. "But it's better to make a clean break."

On Friday afternoon, Sir Peter Middleton, Barclays' deputy chairman and acting chief executive, replied to the question "why so fast?" this way: "I think Martin increasingly felt he didn't want to spend another five years running a bank. This doesn't explain why he left this week. That's down to Martin's personality. He reaches conclusions. He's sure about his conclusions. He acts."

There were rumours to explain the sudden departure. The spiciest was that Barclays had fallen foul of regulators at the Financial Services Authority. The FSA was unhappy that no one senior at Barclays knew about the bank's exposure to a collapsing Russia until Barclays Capital's proprietary trading desk suffered a pounds 250m loss, so the story went. The regulators' unhappiness intensified, supposedly, when Barclays was caught out again with an investment in the troubled US hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management.

But there was little to stand up this rumour. The closest anyone came was suggesting that theoretically Barclays and the FSA could have quibbled when the FSA went in for a Section 39 review of the bank - a routine review required under law. Banks have to foot the bill for Section 39 reviews and the wider the scope, the more costly the accounting operation.

Another rumour was that Taylor and the Barclays board had fallen out over a Taylor proposition to merge, acquire, or demerge.

One version was that Taylor wanted Barclays to combine with Halifax. Or the Pru. Another was that Taylor wanted to create two publicly quoted companies - Barclays, the UK high- street bank, and Barclays Capital, the international investment bank. "McKinsey's, the management consultants, came up with a demerger plan like that in 1990," recalled ABN Amro bank analyst Peter Toeman. "But the board voted it down. Maybe the board voted it down again last week."

There was nothing definite to stand up these rumours either. Sir Peter Middleton - a man who chooses his words carefully - denied Taylor resigned because a proposal had been blocked. "There wasn't an event," he said.

So analysts and investors had to resort to trying to work out why Taylor left so fast by piecing together a narrative. For three years after Taylor joined Barclays in 1994 he shone. Barclays was and is a money machine. Few enterprises anywhere generate in the vicinity of pounds 2bn a year in pre- tax profits. That is what Barclays does. Taylor was seen as the man rewiring Barclays to snare an even larger profit in the consolidating global banking industry.

Then, in October last year, Barclays announced it was selling the stockbroking arm of its investment bank BZW and renaming the bond and foreign exchange dealing side, to which it was holding on, Barclays Capital. But the early announcement of the bank's intentions was criticised for undercutting the price it was able to command.

Then came last spring, when Taylor held semi-public talks with National Westminster Bank and Standard Chartered about a merger. Nothing specific emerged, but the feeling in the City, as Robin Monro-Davies, the head of credit rating agency IBCA put it, was that, "it got so any business meeting involving merger talks had to have an empty chair in case Martin popped up."

Then on 20 November, hot on the heels of the Russian and LTCM losses, came the first open hint that Taylor's stumbles had left him vulnerable to board members critical of his non-grey suit approach - the men whose clashes with Taylor in terms of style gradually intensified over the past two years.

Finally, speaking at the European Banking Congress in Frankfurt, Andrew Buxton, Barclays' chairman, the only remaining descendant of the Quaker families who founded the bank still active at a senior level and a man whom the City's internationalists dismiss as a lightweight, offered a cogent and stirring critique of aspects of modern banking.

Buxton attacked the practice of valuing a bank's assets day-by-day against the market - marking to market. The practice would, Buxton said, cause banks to shy away from small and medium-sized companies whose value fluctuated. Banks pressed to mark their assets to market would leave small businessman in the lurch, the Barclays chairman said.

Last week, Taylor began telling colleagues he was going to resign. The news reached Sir Peter Middleton. Providing few details of a crucial meeting with Taylor on Tuesday, Sir Peter said he arranged for Taylor to go and see Barclays' senior non-executive director, Sir Nigel Mobbs, chairman of Bovis and Slough Estates, on Wednesday. On Thursday evening at six, the Barclays board met at Lombard Street.

Taylor formally resigned. On Friday at 7:30am, Barclays informed the Stock Exchange of Taylor's resignation and confirmed that Sir Peter would replace Buxton as the bank's chairman next year and that Oliver Stocken, the finance director, due to retire on 31 December, would stay until April. It began canvassing internal and external candidates for the post of chief executive. It also said it expected to earn pounds 1.95bn in 1998 - pounds 300m less than analysts' forecasts.

The dismal number included in the Stock Exchange announcement highlighted the second great question raised by last week's drama: where does Barclays go from here?

There are two options - the Taylor go-for-a-global-presence option, and the grey-suit retreat-into-the-solid-but-unexciting-UK market option. No one has packaged either option persuasively.

"I talked to Martin last summer," said IBCA's Monro-Davies. "It was clear that he wanted a UK merger, creating a huge domestic power base from which to reach out globally."

The other option - retreating into the home market - has worked for Lloyds- TSB. NatWest is now trying a version of it. But, said Monro-Davies, "this strategy is running out of steam. If British banks don't get bigger, they will eventually get taken over."

So what should Barclays' new chief executive do? "I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone does," said Monro-Davies. "That was Martin's problem."