Freethinker of the banking world

Interview: Martin Taylor; The Barclays chief executive explains to Jeremy Warner why he is holding firm to his vision of the future in spite of recent City criticism He tells why
WE'RE deep in the bowels of Barclays' head office, in one of those airless, windowless corporate City dining rooms. We've both been on holiday recently, and we're discussing how swiftly the strain of work erases all the good effects. "About two weeks - the length of time I've been back," I venture.

For Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays, it was a lot faster. "Someone has to be here in August," he says. "And anyway, I have to be around for the interim results. So I take my holidays in July. It seems like an age away already."

So it must. The results, announced a couple of weeks back, were not particularly well received - either in the press or the City - and there has been renewed media speculation that Taylor, recently turned 46, intends to quit, possibly to join his new found Labour buddies in government. Taylor finds it all very irritating, since it gives the impression that with the banking cycle now peaking out, he is an "in at the bottom out at the top" opportunist. He insists, by the way, that it is also misinformed.

It is now exactly five years ago that Taylor, to a mixture of surprise and applause, was appointed to the hot seat at Barclays. Until then, Barclays had always been run by a member of the five ruling families from which the bank had sprung. Taylor is the first outsider to occupy the post, and is still its youngest.

What he came into was a profoundly demoralised and run-down organisation in urgent need of modernisation and new direction. The fall of Barclays had been a cautionary tale of banking hubris and recklessness on a grand scale. Overtaken in the mid-1980s by its arch-rival, NatWest, in terms of size, Barclays had persuaded shareholders to stump up nearly pounds 1bn of new equity to fund an attempted climb back to pole position.

Under the slogan "Number One By Ninety One", the bank threw caution to the winds and embarked on an extraordinary lending binge. The result was as predictable as it was devastating. When the recession came, Barclays was worse hit than any other high-street bank. The bad debts rose and rose, and for the first time in its history, Barclays was forced to declare a loss - a terrible indict- ment for any bank let alone one as big as Barclays.

The City demanded change, as well as scalps. To save himself, the chairman, Andrew Buxton, promised to bring in an outside chief executive. Head hunters were appointed, speculation mounted, any number of grey-haired bankers filed in and out of the interview rooms, and then out of the blue the committee of independent non-executives charged with finding a saviour announced the appointment of the young whipper snapper Taylor.

At first the City did not know what to make of it. Taylor was known for being fiendishly clever, but as a businessman his track record was limited and as a banker it was non-existent.

Clever Taylor undoubtedly is. While at Balliol College, Oxford, he studied oriental languages, including Mandarin - "because it was difficult". He is that sometimes seductive mixture of arrogant certainty and charm, the unmistakable hallmark of the Old Etonian he is, and he dresses casual, not Richard Branson casual, but Italian designer casual - loose fitting suit, colour co-ordinated tie and comfortable shirt. Even today he looks more like the journalist he once was than a banker.

In his time, Taylor was generally regarded as one of the best-ever editors of the FT's Lex column. This respected and often arcane investment column, once famously described as widely read but rarely understood, might not seem a likely training ground for business leadership.

Even so, Taylor seemed preordained for greatness. As a young reporter, I used to come across him on the company news circuit, and it was apparent then that he thought he could run these companies as well as he could write about them. Journalism is nonetheless a seductive profession.

Even so, I always had him down as a future editor of the FT, or perhaps one of those highly paid management gurus so beloved of the US lecture circuit. He speaks swiftly, one argument tumbling in on another, a legion of subordinate clauses and caveats amid the richness of his thought process. On occasions, if the truth be known, he goes full circle and ends up contradicting himself, but this hardly seems to matter; he may be simply marshalling all sides of the argument to the central purpose.

He is also irritatingly precise in his semantics, in the manner of a lawyer. I venture that he is at the forefront of the debate over consolidation in the banking industry. "I don't see myself as being much involved in the debate, it's more about making predictions," he says. "I've been saying for the last 18 months that it's absolutely certain there would be huge consolidation in world banking and since I've said it, there has been huge consolidation in world banking. Phase one has already happened. There's now going to be a phase two, three and four. That's not open to debate."

Back in time to the FT. The lucrative City job offers came flooding in. Taylor resisted until at the age of 29, when along came the break he was looking for. For all chief executives, there is a defining moment, a stroke of luck without which they would not be where they are. For Taylor it was being made personal assistant to Sir Christopher Hogg, another old Etonian who at that time headed up Courtaulds.

There are large parts of Sir Christopher's style in Taylor, and it is clear that this was an apprenticeship in the old style; you do it like the mentor, there is no other way. Both have an approach to business leadership and decision making that is intellectually driven rather than intuitive. There's also a certain laid-back quality, which can easily be mistaken for lack of urgency but is more to do with a reflective approach to problem solving. Some in the City do not like it all the same. "Too precious for words" is one common criticism.

Five years into the job and Taylor was made chief executive of Courtaulds Textiles, the demerged apparel and threads part of the Courtaulds group. There his reputation was for draconian cost cutting and plant closures. It earned him few friends in the textile industry but endeared him to the City - and probably saved the company.

Barclays was a gift. Taylor arrived at a point where things could hardly have got any worse. "You could hardly have been more lucky with your timing," I suggest.

This draws an interesting response - one of faintly offended, feigned puzzlement. "I don't think I'm lucky with my timing at all. The bank was looking for a chief executive, and I was chosen. The timing was not lucky, it was absolutely necessary. A lot of people supposed, and I supposed from what I read, that the bank would still be going down, that my task was to turn it round.

"When I got here, what I actually found was that it had already turned and it was coming out quite fast .The things you do as a manager are very different under these circumstances. I spent a lot of time studying large turnarounds before coming to Barclays, but I found that actually that information initially was not of much help."

Taylor spent his early weeks simply observing the organisation. At the end of it, he produced a document for senior executives, "First Impressions". I had heard this was a statement of objectives, a sort of five-year plan. Not at all. "I sent round a paper of observations, the flavour of the organisation - what was wrong with it, what was right with it. It certainly wasn't a five-year plan. I've never been like that. And it was overwhelmingly cultural in nature, about the way the institution struck me. Rather like someone spending time, you know, with a tribe they didn't know. I wanted to get that down on paper before I became part of the tribe. Put it this way, Jeremy, if I had been so rash as to publish what I wanted to do with Barclays, I wouldn't have achieved it yet."

So what struck him most? "Credit-risk processes and ways of thinking. And then the way people behaved with each other. There was a rather strange attitude to money, which we didn't recognise at all from the other side of the business fence. It seemed to swing from the extraordinarily mean to the extraordinarily reckless, with not much in between.

"But mostly it was the behaviour of the people which worried me. The organisation confused formality with discipline and professionalism, it assumed that because everyone kept their jackets on at meetings, knew their place, and conducted things only through the proper channels, that this was proof things were being done properly, whereas actually the business was not disciplined at all. I wanted it to become very much less formal, and more disciplined at the same time."

Nearly five years on, has he succeeded, or has he just ridden the upturn in the economy? Certainly his profits and share price have stormed ahead, but that is true of nearly all banks. If there is a recession, bad debts are going to rise again and profits are going to fall.

Of that there is no doubt. Taylor's belief is that the organisational and personnel changes he has introduced, the reforms in risk assessment and credit control, the attention to costs, will ensure that the down is very much less than last time round.

Essentially, the City has bought the story. But there are still doubts. The relative investment positions of Barclays and NatWest have reversed. The City liked the last set of figures from NatWest, for so long the whipping boy of the sector, but was unimpressed with Barclays'.

For some, the sale of BZW's equities arm was a turning point. Most banking analysts agree it was the right decision, but it seemed a shabby and disreputable retreat. Undoubtedly it marked a change of heart for Taylor, who until then had been investing heavily in the attempt to create an integrated investment bank along Wall Street lines. U-turns always damage credibility to some extent.

So what is Taylor going to do next? When he accepted offer from Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, to head up the Government's tax and benefit review, it was widely assumed in the City he had lost interest. Then it filtered out that he had approached a number of competitors with proposals to merge. In each case, he was spurned. The impression was of a man who needed a deal.

None of this is right, according to Taylor. He will not be outstaying his welcome at Barclays but there is a lot left to do before that time comes. And as for consolidation, he views that as inevitable as tomorrow's dawn.