Eric Daniels: Leader of safety first revival takes a gamble

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The Independent Online

While bosses at Barclays were combative and HSBC's management confident, Lloyds felt rather depressed.

Of course the former two had between them reported first half profit of nearly £6bn while Eric Daniels and his team were struggling to find positives in a £4bn first half loss.

That loss was largely the responsibility of HBOS, with which Lloyds TSB merged last year, just as Mr Daniels was finally being lauded for a profoundly conservative "safety first" strategy he had been taking brickbats for ever since he took over the top job in 2003.

Mr Daniels took over at Lloyds from Peter Ellwood, for whom he had worked as finance director. His first presentation was hardly inspiring, littered with American management speak he basically blamed the bank's problems on his former boss, although that assessment was shared by plenty of others.

The urbane American had joined Lloyds after 18 years at Citigroup during which time the US giant was involved in a deal spree that turned it into the world's biggest bank. Some of the cracks were beginning to show, however, as he left and the safety first strategy he embarked upon was perhaps no surprise as a result.

It involved fixing Lloyds' ill-conceived takeover of the life insurer Scottish Widows, boosting the capital base by selling off assets such as National Bank of New Zealand and the Latin American businesses and protecting the bank's huge dividend.

All the while Daniels was the subject of some biting criticism in the City and the press, he was managing to succeed in winning round staff at the bank and nudging its culture away from the arrogance that it had displayed in previous years. His tendency to use long rambling sentences when a simple "no comment" would do, and propensity to lapse into management gobbledigook, could be irritating, but he also had a certain charm. He was politically incorrect enough to smoke Marlboro Lights and make no apology for doing so, happily lighting up after a results presentation prior to the smoking ban. He would also – by contrast to most of his peers – down a glass of wine or two while puffing away and never took criticism personally.

He has further made efforts to promote women, something his rivals have conspicuously failed to do. Retail banking chief Helen Weir, previously finance director, was and is the only female executive on the board of any of Britain's big four banks. Given what Daniels has done, and the way he resisted those who called for a change of tack, it therefore seemed out of character that he should embark on a hugely risky deal. While it may have been pushed by his chairman, Sir Victor Blank, under pressure from ministers, Daniels still – ultimately – went along with it.

He insists that he will eventually be proved right. The question is whether the downbeat figure he cut yesterday will be around to see the benefits.