Foulds to search for successor at Halifax

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JON FOULDS, chairman of Halifax, has told City investors that he plans to stay on until well into next year to ensure a smooth transition at the top of the building society-turned-bank.

Mr Foulds turned 66 in May, and last week's unexpected decision by Mike Blackburn, the popular Halifax chief executive, to leave his job at the end of this year has prompted concern that Mr Foulds might also be about to leave the group.

However Mr Foulds, who has been the leading boardroom champion of efforts by Halifax to strike a merger deal with another major financial services group, has made it clear that he wants to ensure that the new chief executive, James Crosby, has had at least six months to settle in his new job before making any firm decisions about his own retirement.

Mr Foulds is also keen to lead the search for his successor. An obvious time to announce a change-over would be at the next annual meeting in April 1999.

The indications are that Halifax will be looking outside the group for Mr Fould's replacement. Mr Blackburn, who will move up to vice-chairman next year, has ruled himself out as a candidate.

Mr Foulds is still believed to be keen to achieve a merger with another bank or insurance company. However, last week's changes at the top have been interpreted as a signal that there is little expectation of a merger in the short-term at least.

An attempt to merge with the Royal Bank of Scotland failed earlier this year after it met with opposition from the Scottish bank's board.

Analysts said Mr Crosby's background suggested that Halifax, which has been widely criticised in the City for its failure to find a constructive use for its pounds 3bn cash pile, may now seek to imitate Abbey National's strategy and reduce its dependence on the UK mortgage market by making selective bolt-on acquisitions in the financial services sector rather than through a single big bank merger.

Mr Crosby was responsible for Halifax's takeover of the life insurance group, Clerical Medical. Halifax has recently been linked with Bupa, the private medical insurance group.

Halifax's only significant deal since its flotation last year is the pounds 750m purchase of Birmingham Midshires, which has been dismissed by several City analysts as failing to resolve Halifax's fundamental strategic problem of being the biggest player in a shrinking UK home loans market.