Helen Weir: From Marmite on toast to a budget hotel, it's back to basics in high finance
A day in the life: Helen Weir sees Lloyds TSB as the Ronseal Bank, doing just what it says on the tin – reassuring in these febrile times
Saturday 12 January 2008
Helen Weir's alarm chimes 15 minutes before she has to get up: "I like to have just those few minutes in the morning when I can just lie there and think that I don't have to get up just yet."
This is understandable. Mrs Weir will get precious little peace for the rest of the day – Lloyds TSB is due to report its results in less than a month in the midst of the ongoing credit crunch. The spotlight is therefore firmly focused on its finance director – one of only a handful of female executives in the FTSE 100.
The working day starts inthe car just 45 minutes later – Mrs Weir has a pile of company papers to go through as she is driven to the City of London, just over an hour from her Buckinghamshire home. She says she has a "very precise" routine to enable her to get out of the house in just half an hour, culminating with a visit to each of herthree children, who are usually still sleeping. Then it is downto business.
When she arrives Mrs Weir takes a breakfast of Marmite on toast with a large pot of tea in her office. "I have the same thing every day, and I use the first half an hour to catch up with e-mails and post. It is also the time when people can stop by for five or 10 minutes for a chat if they need to catch up with something for whatever reason. I'm a morning person, so it's a good time to catch me."
Across the table, in a formal situation such as at a results briefing, Mrs Weir can sometimes seem intimidating. She appears supremely confident, even forceful, backed by a formidable intellect that saw her achieving a double First in maths at Oxford. You come away with the impression that this is someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly. One on one, she shows a different side, warmer, and more personable. She still talks nineteen to the dozen, but laughs easily and often. Her door, she says, is always open, although colleagues usually call or email ahead if they want to drop by.
Lloyds TSB is in a position most banks would currently envy: its exposure to the sort of exotic debt instruments dreamt up by financial whizzkids but built on houses of straw (worthless US sub-prime loans) is very limited. The bank, which for several years has endured harsh criticism, is now sitting pretty. Suddenly the "boring" businesses of taking deposits, lending money carefully and selling life insurance and pensions are looking good. So funding is not the problem it is for some rivals, stricken by the credit crunch.
Nonetheless, the crunch means that the bank's monthly funding meeting is now aweekly affair, and has been so since August.
"I'd call us the Ronseal Bank. We do what it says on the tin," says Mrs Weir. "It comes from my background in DIY – I used to be finance director of B&Q. We have a low-risk model. You don't get the highs, but you don't get the lows either. What's ironic is that what was previously considered to be dull and boring is now considered prudent and the right way to do banking."
This means other banks are happy to lend to Lloyds, and its cost of funding is a lot lower than for most peers. "We are having the meeting weekly rather than monthly because we still need to understand what the tenor of the market is, as well as our own funding position. We need to know what is going on out there."
The crisis, of course, also presents opportunities: "Other banks may be disposing of assets at attractive rates that we may want to pick up."
After checking in with her PA, Mrs Weir heads to the executive committee, which is comprised of the company's 10 leading managers, six of whom are on the main board. They will be closely listening to what she has to say, because she will unveil the company's "flash numbers" for the 2007 trading year.
"It's only a week after the end, but we will be 95/98 per cent there for the results. We will talk about what they show, and we will begin to start talking about the key messages we want toget across."
Bank results (Lloyds' are revealed next month) are always closely watched, but this year the scrutiny will be especially intense because of the credit crunch. The effect of a bank unveiling a nasty surprise could be dramatic. Mrs Weir describes the markets as "febrile" as a result.
"It's not uncommon for our shares to move 3 or 4 per cent in a day. Usually it's 1 or 2 per cent, and you'd get a call from the listing authority asking if anything was going on if it was much more."
The group also discusses the vexed issue of bonuses. Mrs Weir is keen that finance staff, who can be found in all of the company's divisions, have a unified bonus structure so they can be easily moved around. "I want to be able to offer people career development, and that means you need to be able to relocate them."
Lunch is a hurried sandwich with the company's brokers, to take feedback from what the market is saying about Lloyds and what it expects. Mrs Weir is particularly keen to gauge expectations about the company's dividend – one of the sector's highest – and she will feed back the information to the company's board. The "divvy" was increased in July for the first time in several years, and shareholders are now hoping for a repeat performance.
"The feedback is good, the market appreciates where we are. It isn't exciting, but as I said, we do what we say on the tin and Eric [Daniels, chief executive] and I now have a track recordof doing what we said we'd do."
She moves on to a regular monthly meeting with the finance directors of each ofthe bank's four divisions tocheck that everything is running smoothly and hold more discussions on how to present the results.
Mrs Weir wants to discuss recruitment and staffing issues with her head of human resources. She is very keen to push the idea of a "finance community" in addition to looking at key appointments.
"For me, the idea of a finance community is important. While a lot of them out in the business don't report to me directly they are much more likely to take another finance job when they move on, so I think it is important that they feel part of a community," she says.
Mrs Weir, at 45, has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the corporate ranks. She notes, however, that Lloyds TSB has a rather better record than some of its competitors on hiring women, with four of the eight most senior executives who report to Mr Daniels being women. However, she says: "I'm not a militant about this. I'm pragmatic. I have certainly never encountered any prejudice. When I give talks to women's organisations I tell them that you have to accept that you make compromises. I work very long hours, but I don't work weekends, and I'm absolutely firm on that. Some people might not want to do that (work the hours), and that's fine if it suits them. Making compromises is increasingly something men are having to accept and deal with as well."
Mrs Weir heads out to an awards dinner with a group of middle to senior managers who have been earmarked as "high potential" staff. She sees this as a good opportunity to get to know people who could be futurestars of the business in an informal setting.
The dinner means she will have to stay over in London, something she usually tries to avoid. One might expect an executive of Mrs Weir's standing to stay at a swish hotel, but instead she retires to Club Quarters – "a sort of Travelodge for business people".
"At that point I don't need a lot. A bed that's clean, a shower that works, and a TV that works so I can catch up with the headlines. You wouldn't really expect me to stay somewhere posh. I am the finance director, after all."
Name: Helen Weir
Position: Group finance director, Lloyds TSB
Education: Oxford University, Mathematics.
1983-1985: Joins Unilever as a graduate trainee
1985-1990: MBA at Stanford Business School and then research
1990-1995: Consultant atMcKinsey & Company
1995-2000: Appointed finance director at DIY retailer B &Q
2000-2004: Promoted to group finance director at parent Kingfisher
2004-present: Joins Lloyds TSB as group finance director
Personal: Lives in High Wycombe with her husband and three children.
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