Outlook: NatWest needs a new helmsman

Gone are the days when the board of a clearing bank was the size of a male voice choir. But even today you still need a decent number of chaps and chapesses to run the shop and few of our clearers seem comfortable rubbing along with anything less than a rugby team's worth around the board table. The board of NatWest is below strength right now, having lost two members recently, and seemingly they may be about to lose another brace if the rumours about Sir John Banham and Sir Desmond Pitcher are true. Only one replacement has so far been found, Pen Kent.

NatWest is, therefore, in the market for up to three new non-execs. One of them, when he (or she) has been found, will succeed Lord Alexander as non-executive chairman, if everything goes to plan.

Despite weekend press speculation to the contrary, that person will not be Sir Colin Southgate, who had been approached about adding the chairmanship of NatWest to his stewardship of EMI and the Royal Opera House. Sir Colin appears to have decided that he has enough on his plate spinning more life out of the Spice Girls, merging the ROH with the English National Opera and doing battle with Gerald Kaufman before the Select Committee on Culture, Heritage and Sport.

The names of several other candidates have been aired in recent months without any firmer insight into whether they will be offered the job or, indeed, want to accept it. They include Sir Andrew Large, former chairman of the Securities and Investments Board, Sir Clive Thompson, chairman of Rentokil-Initial and soon to become president of the CBI, and Sir Nigel Rudd, chairman of Pilkington and Williams Holdings.

Many are called, few are chosen, as they say. But the notable thing about those called by NatWest is that none has any record as a banker. Sir Nigel Rudd comes closest, being a non-exec of Barclays. There again neither did Lord Alexander have any experience of banking before he took up the mantle at NatWest in October, 1989 promising (or was that threatening?) not to stay in the job for any longer than 10 years.

Perhaps that is where NatWest has gone wrong. Lord Alexander may have made a wonderful libel lawyer for Jeffrey Archer but his record as a non- banker at the helm of NatWest is mixed. By contrast Lloyds TSB, by far the most successful of the four main clearers, has been run for 15 years by a professional banker, Sir Brian Pitman, who has worked for the bank man and boy. The same goes for Sir William Purves and John Bond at HSBC.

The succession timetable at NatWest runs something like this: appointment of the new non-execs in time for the prelims in February, Lord A announces his retirement at the interims in August and departs a year hence, handing over the reins to his chief executive, Derek Wanless, and turning the chairmanship into a non-executive part-time post. This is how chairmen like to go - not seen to be driven out by discontented shareholders but at their own pace

Unfortunately, it is not clear NatWest can afford such a leisurely departure. It needs new direction right now. Furthermore, if Mr Wanless is to emerge from the shadow of his chairman and prove that he is the professional banker to run NatWest, then Lord Alexander should make way more quickly.

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