The man who lost £28bn of RBS cash

As head of RBS, Fred Goodwin was lauded, knighted and richly rewarded. Now he is being blamed for the biggest loss in British corporate history. Cahal Milmo reports
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The Independent Online

As the banker being widely held responsible for the biggest corporate loss in British history, Sir Fred Goodwin was unsurprisingly not receiving callers at his handsome Victorian villa in Edinburgh yesterday.

The 50-year-old motorsport fan, who less than three years ago was in pole position as the globe's most dynamic and acquisitive banker, lives in the same well-heeled corner of the Scottish capital as the Harry Potter author, J K Rowling, and other luminaries of Edinburgh society.

But the former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, once a regular visitor to 11 Downing Street when his fellow Scot Gordon Brown was overseeing the economy and nicknamed "Fred the Shred" for his keen eye and steady hand when reducing costs, has been keeping a low profile of late.

Sir Fred has said very little in public since October when he resigned ignominiously as the financial colossus he built found itself reliant on £20bn of government money to stay afloat. One of his final utterances to reporters after seven years at the RBS helm was: "A good long rest is the first order of priority."

There was every indication yesterday that this self-imposed period of contemplation is continuing. His wife, Joyce, answered the door at the six-bedroom house in The Grange to say that her husband would not be commenting on the announcement that his former employer had revealed a deficit over the past two years of up to £28bn.

It is likely that Sir Fred has instead been spending a good deal of time tinkering with his classic car collection, understood to include a Triumph Stag, the one-time crowning glory of British Leyland that was supposed to take the fight to the world's prestige motor manufacturers but was instead liable to engine failure. Observers have quietly pointed out parallels between the Stag and RBS's own fortunes.

Privately, the man who was knighted by the Labour government in 2004 for services to British banking is understood to accept that he will not be returning to a similar strategic role in a publicly-listed corporation any time soon. Instead, the banker whose remuneration package in 2006 was about £8m in cash and shares, is thought to be exploring his options with private equity companies and consultancies.

For a financier whose steely rigour and almost obsessive eye for detail in the 26 acquisitions he made on behalf of RBS made him one of the most feared and admired chief executives in this most globalised of sectors, the opprobrium heaped upon Sir Fred since his departure will not have been gladly received.

Newsweek led the post-mortem examination of Sir Fred's departure from RBS following the Government's recapitalisation (and partial nationalisation) of British banks last autumn by asking whether the self-made Paisley Grammar School boy and son of an engineer who turned a small regional finance house into the fifth largest bank on the planet was "the world's worst banker".

One former RBS executive said: "Fred is intimidating and charming, acerbic and charming in equal measure. As far as he was concerned, he was the man who was going to put us on the same footing as HSBC or Citigroup. But he is also careful about his reputation and he will be very far from delighted to find he is picking up the can as some sort of credit crunch Ozymandias who built a banking giant only to see it fall down around his ears."

Until his spectacular fall from grace, Fred the Shred arguably had good reason for a strong belief in his capabilities. Raised in the solidly unglamorous Glasgow suburb of Paisley, he was the first member of his family to go to university, obtaining a law degree from Glasgow University before joining accountancy firm Touche Ross. By 29 he was made a partner and went on to oversee the liquidation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), retrieving half the missing funds from one of the biggest and most complex frauds in history. It was this talent for overseeing and streamlining operations of an institution that led to Goodwin being poached as deputy chief executive of Clydesdale Bank in 1995, before heading the bank a year later.

His nickname comes from his fastidious and forensic trimming of jobs and costs from the mid-ranking Scottish bank. His performance earned him further admirers, including Sir George Matthewson, then chief executive of RBS, who recruited Goodwin as his replacement in 2000.

Over the next seven years, Goodwin placed RBS, the reliable but uninspiring grand dame of Edinburgh's financial district, chartered in 1727, on a rapidly accelerating conveyor belt towards status as a global powerhouse. His first – and perhaps greatest coup – was the £23.6bn hostile takeover in 2000 of NatWest, a rival three times the size of RBS. Despite maintaining NatWest's branch network, the merger with RBS resulted in 18,000 job losses.

The explosion global credit coincided with Sir Fred's strategy for RBS to buy its way to greatness. By the summer of 2007, the bank had acquired 26 others at a cost in excess of £35bn, including holdings in America and a £800m stake in the Bank of China. By 2006, RBS was Europe's biggest funder of leveraged buyouts and its share price stood at £13. By the close of trading yesterday RBS shares were trading at 11.6p.

It was the final deal in this pattern which ultimately proved disastrous – the £55bn joint takeover of Dutch banking group ABN Amro in the summer of 2007. Shortly after announcing his intention to bid for the bank, Sir Fred said: "The key to good deal making is being prepared to walk away."

The banker's increasing ranks of critics were beginning to whisper that the inability to follow his own advice was Sir Fred's problem. Slowly, the panic begin to set in that while the RBS chief executive flew around the world in the company jet shoring up his banking empire, the bank's balance sheet was overstretched by too many acquisitions.

In many ways, the image of a high-rolling plutocrat did not sit well with the boyish and slightly dour banker. While his designer-clad colleagues entertained guests at Formula One meetings (RBS sponsors the Williams team), Sir Fred, who remains chairman of the Prince's Trust, was happy to chat wearing an RBS-branded white short-sleeved shirt and tartan trousers.

It was with similar understatement that the one-time king of Scottish banking summarised the nature of his departure from RBS and, potentially, corporate life. He said: "This would not have been the manner or circumstances I would have chosen."