Northern Rock - So are these people off their Rockers?

The stricken bank's new set of high-profile managers could cement their reputations, says Simon Evans – or they could be engulfed by the storm
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The Independent Online

After months of wrangling, the phones finally went quiet at the central London headquarters of the advisers for Virgin Money.

Despite schmoozing with the Prime Minister in China and, even for him, the most vigorous of PR campaigns, Sir Richard Branson finally had to admit defeat in his battle to buy Northern Rock.

At the same time, Treasury officials were calling for the services of Ron Sandler, the man lined up by Gordon Brown to run the Rock in the event of the private auction failing.

Nationalisation, a word that conjures up all manner of negative images in the minds of many Brits, was on.

Across London in Wimbledon, at a mansion just a stone's throw from the famous common, Sandler began packing his bags for the long trip north to Newcastle.

A day later he was paraded in front of the world's media for the first time, dampening expectations of a quick turnaround and sale of the Rock.

Joe Public may not have come face to face with Sandler before, but the native Zimbabwean who holds a German passport has long been a prominent face in the City: Companies House filings show he has enjoyed more than 40 directorships across a range of industries since the early 1990s.

In the month preceding the 16 February deadline that would signal the demise of the Rock as a private entity, Sandler scoured the City seeking to leverage his Square Mile contacts to build a team that would guide the ailing bank in public hands. And now he heads what, on paper at least, looks like a management eminently capable of reigniting Northern Rock.

Ann Godbehere, a qualified accountant who made her name at reinsurance group Swiss Re, comes in as chief financial officer, while British Land chief executive Stephen Hester, formerly finance director at Abbey and instrumental in the bank's sale to Spanish giant Santander, will be deputy non-executive chairman. The board will also be able to call upon the services of one of the City's most successful rainmakers in recent years: Goldman Sachs' head of UK corporate finance, Simon Dingemans.

Although lacking any discernable banking qualifications, Sandler has garnered a reputation as a "Mr Fix-it" through his successful spells in the 1990s at Lloyd's of London and later with NatWest.

He was the linchpin in brokering a deal between Lloyd's and the wealthy "names" who underwrote losses in the insurance market only to cry foul when giant asbestos-linked costs emerged. In double-quick time, he managed to put together a compromise solution that at least retained Lloyd's position as one of the world's biggest reinsurance markets – a status that had come under threat.

Sir David Rowland, then chairman, was responsible for bringing in the hitherto relatively unknown Sandler at Lloyd's, and he turned to him once again in his hour of need as chairman of NatWest, ensuring that the bank fought off the advances of rival suitors.

Sir David might have championed him in the corporate world but Sandler had also caught the eye of the then Chancellor Gordon Brown, who in 2001 appointed him to conduct a review of the state of Britain's savings industry.

Sandler was brought in to make recommendations on how to arrest the decline in British savings rates amid feelings that the consumer was being ripped off by product providers.

A raft of policy measures came forth, including the simplification of products, stricter investment qualifications and the removal of unnecessary jargon from paperwork.

Sandler's assessment spawned the creation of the almost universally panned stakeholder pension system, which was brought in to encourage savings at the poorer end of the spectrum through the selling point of low charges. Many of the other recommendations in Sandler's report were summarily booted into the long grass.

"He is clearly an intelligent man. His basic success was to work with David Rowland on the restructuring of Lloyd's but he's not thought of as a great friend of the life insurance industry," says Tony Silverman, an analyst at Standard and Poor's Equity Research. "He tried to be original but, at the end of the day, wasn't strikingly unique or insightful, and it would be very easy to argue that his ideas have had only very limited impact."

One newspaper at the time expressed similar feelings: "Much of what Sandler says is worthwhile, but scarcely news."

News of a negative kind, however, came Sandler's way in 2006 when as chairman of Kyte Group, the London-based derivatives firm was fined £250,000 by financial regulators for accounting failures. It was an embarrassing aside rather than a reputational dent – perhaps a symptom of having so many non-executive directorships on his cv.

Sandler has also garnered himself something of a reputation in the ego department, with his innate self belief – described as "over inflated" by critics – rubbing more than a few people up the wrong way.

If there is an ego to be pricked, it's sure to be tested by the pleth-ora of government apparatchiks likely to want to get in on the act of a Northern Rock revival.

In the days since he was appointed – a process of which we know absolutely nothing and never will because of Treasury restrictions – Sandler has got off to a mixed start.

On Tuesday it was seized upon, rather than revealed, that he more than likely qualifies for non-domiciliary tax status – a contentious point at the best of times but even more so a week after Chancellor Alistair Darling performed a huge climb -down on implementing harsher tax proposals for "non-doms".

It seems that chief financial officer Ann Godbehere is also a non-dom.

On the plus side, Sandler wasted no time in reappointing the City PR agency Finsbury, which is led by a close New Labour and Tony Blair ally Roland Rudd, to do its bidding among journalists.

Indeed, good public relations will be a key weapon for Sandler as he attempts to convey the complexity of the job at Northern Rock to an increasingly hostile public audience.

Last week, for example, the "Granite" securitisation vehicle – a part of the bank that is alleged both to hold the highest-quality mortgages and to still be in private hands – reared its head in Parliament. It's an issue that many in the Square Mile have long since put to bed.

Mike Trippett, analyst at Oriel Securities says: "I have to say I really couldn't help but laugh at the House of Commons scenes, particularly David Cameron huffing and puffing about Granite. Granite details are clear for everyone to see on Northern Rock's website and have been for years."

But Sandler's mettle will be tested by the barrage heading his way from the Tories. At the end of last week, Conservative Treasury minister Mark Hoban tabled a raft of questions on the Rock saga; many more will surely follow, with a direct hit likely to make an MP's name.

But as with most players in the financial markets at the moment, Sandler's success will be defined by a softening in the headwinds that initially knocked Northern Rock off course.

If the markets turn their way, Sandler's team will be feted. But if things get worse, they will be ruing the day they ever got involved with the Rock.

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