Standard shifts into recovery: In the first of a series on successful reversals of fortune, Peter Rodgers looks at the most remarkable banking revival in recent years

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THE SHARE price of Standard Chartered has been of more than usual interest in the typing pool this summer. Many junior staff in the company stand to make a profit of as much as pounds 30,000 when share options taken out under a save-as-you-earn scheme mature at the end of next year, if today's levels are sustained. They are riding on the back of the most remarkable share price recovery the banking sector has seen in recent years.

By last night, just ahead of today's interim results, the shares had reached 898p, more than double the price a year ago and four times early 1991's level. The shares have also pushed ahead of their level during a viciously fought but failed takeover attempt by Lloyds Bank in 1986.

For a bank that was written off several times by the City in the 1980s as a basket case and whose shares plummeted against the rest of the sector through most of the decade, this is a remarkable turnaround. Investors have been chasing the shares mainly because of the profitability of Standard's business in the fast-growing economies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

The revival follows a succession of failures by management to get to grips with the problem of modernising a bank that was an anachronistic hangover of empire, run by the banking expatriate's equivalent of the old Indian civil servant.

If there was a single event that sealed Standard's fate, it was a morning in January 1982, when Peter Graham, the managing director, opened a letter from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission saying his takeover bid for Royal Bank of Scotland had been blocked.

To Mr (now Sir Peter) Graham's shock, the MMC threw out the bid after accepting the arguments of the Scottish political lobby that neither Standard nor the rival bidder, Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, should be allowed to undermine Scottish financial autonomy.

Other British-owned overseas banks - leftovers, like Standard, from the empire - had found new roles or disappeared. The Australian banks became locally owned. Grindlays was eventually taken over by ANZ. Bank of London and South America was absorbed by Lloyds.

But a key part of Standard's strategy was to become a British bank, as well as a British-owned one, by developing in its home country. The failure of the bid for Royal left Standard aimless.

In fact, the thinking behind the ill-fated bid had been colonial in character, not modern. Shortly before, Standard had bought Union Bank of California. An executive present at the time said: 'We were an old empire bank in those days and it was that philosophy that drove us. What we were doing through our acquisitions was expanding our empire - nothing more intelligent than sticking our flag in other spots on the globe.'

Standard was hit like everybody else by the Third World debt crisis. It also shot itself in the foot in the industrial countries, where it was expanding from its old strongholds in Hong Kong, India, the Middle East and South Africa.

'The competition was greater, the markets more sophisticated. Old colonial boys from Malaysia or Nairobi were planted in Zurich or New York and they couldn't cope,' the executive said. Their bad lending sowed the seeds of more losses.

After five years of drift at Standard in the wake of the Royal bid, Lloyds decided in 1986 that the market had undervalued the strength of Standard's overseas franchise, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

Lloyds bid pounds 1.3bn, or more than pounds 8 a share, but was blocked when Standard produced a band of 'white knights' - the late Sir YK Pao, the Hong Kong shipping magnate, the Malaysian businessman Tan Sri Khoo Teck Puat and the late Robert Holmes a Court, who together held a third of the equity. (Tan Sri Khoo remains a big shareholder.)

There were allegations that the stakes had been bought in return for illegal favours. These were rebutted by a Bank of England inquiry, requested by Standard. But the report, of which only a few lines were published, was a seminal event.

It revealed to the Bank of England the depth of Standard's internal crisis. Under Bank pressure, Standard launched a pounds 300m disposal programme to bolster its capital - weakened by bad debts and poor profits - including a pull-out from South Africa and the US.

In what many regarded as a preparation for break-up or sale, the Bank of England also put in as executive chairman its own man, Rodney Galpin, the director in charge of banking supervision. He succeeded Sir Peter Graham, who had stepped in as interim chairman when Lord Barber quit after the Lloyds bid.

Shorn of the US and South Africa, Standard had been drifting again. But the solution was under its nose - to do what Lloyds had planned and exploit the potentially highly profitable network of overseas banks it owned, especially in the Far East.

For that to happen, there had to be a clean break with the old management culture - essentially a federation run by powerful expatriate barons, with too little control from head office.

Mr Galpin brought in Malcolm Williamson from Girobank, and previously Barclays, as top executive, replacing Michael McWilliam, who had fought the Lloyds bid.

One of the first things Mr Williamson stopped was the barons' habit of jetting secretly into each other's territories to pinch business from their colleagues. He got rid of some of the bank's ostentatiously imperial - and extremely valuable - overseas properties as well as the opulent City headquarters. And local people were promoted to run overseas banks.

At head office, other arrivals were Geoff Armstrong from Metal Box to run strategy, Richard Stein as finance director from BOC and John Paterson from Midland to head UK lending. This year Peter Wood, formerly Barclays' finance director, took over from Mr Stein, and John McFarlane, head of Citibank in the UK, became an executive director.

Despite the overhaul, Standard kept its accident-prone image intact. Under Mr Paterson, who has since left, the UK bank lent heavily to Brent Walker and its like at the peak of the boom, losing heavily in the bust.

And the first Indian chief executive of the Indian bank, Peshi Nat, lost his job because of the Bombay securities scandal last year. He was not involved, but the activities of five of his treasury staff cost Standard pounds 305m.

Mr Galpin, who initiated the changes that led to Standard's recovery, also took a pounds 350,000 payoff when he handed over the chairmanship in May to Patrick Gillam, a former managing director of BP. Despite fierce protestations from the bank that the money was a contractual commitment and not compensation for loss of office over the Indian affair, the payoff raised more questions than it answered.

Why, then, the City's new enthusiasm, which (as the chart shows) was only briefly dented by the Bombay losses?

For the technically minded, there is more potential for dividend growth than at the clearing banks. Standard also has the benefit of the doubt over its restructuring and tighter controls, which should reduce the risk of further nasty surprises. (Analysts are regularly ushered around its Far East operations to see for themselves.)

But above all, there is Standard's presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where the fastest growth in the world has outweighed fears about the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. There is also the possibility that Far Eastern profits may tempt another bidder to take a crack at the bank.

Fast growth will bring its own dangers, as it did in the UK in the 1980s. But the difference between Standard now and a few years ago is that a bank that makes decent profits can afford to drop the occasional clanger.

(Photographs omitted)

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