Paul Idzik: The new boy at Barclays vaults into action

The pen snapping, tennis playing, jazz loving American is on a global mission to shake up the 300-year-old bank
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Soft jazz is playing in the background. On the wall are film posters: The Return of the Jedi and Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose (you know, the one with the orang-utan). We are all drinking soft drinks out of cans. Surely this can't be the office of the chief operating officer of Barclays?

It is. But then, Paul Idzik is unlike most people's idea of someone you'd expect to be running a high street bank. For starters, he's American. And for seconds, he used to be a management consultant. And for thirds, he had this thing about pens - specifically pens belonging to rival banks. Shortly after taking up his current post a year ago - a post Barclays managed to do without for more than 300 years, by the way - he was in a meeting, when a subordinate started writing with a Royal Bank of Scotland pen. Idzik took it off him and broke it in half.

So, naturally, The Independent on Sunday had to come armed with our own RBS pen.

Idzik takes one look at it. "Oh, no!" he says. "You can't expect me to let you get away with that."

He picks up the offending RBS Biro and replaces it with a gleaming Barclays ballpoint, bearing the slogan "I am Barclays". He hands the RBS pen to his secretary and tells her: "You know what to do with it."

Idzik has this thing about shaking people up. A fit, 44-year-old - thanks to lots of tennis, at which he was good enough to consider turning professional - he once vaulted the security gates at Barclays' new Canary Wharf headquarters to see how staff would react. Other, unconfirmed, Idzik stories abound from current and former colleagues. People tend to either love him or be glad they are not working with him.

Idzik's job at Barclays is essentially to change the culture of the fusty old high street clearing bank and bring in and promote top talent - though, typically of a former consultant, his description of this takes a few minutes. And he doesn't mind if he rubs a few people up the wrong way to achieve them.

"A lot of what we are doing requires leadership, and leadership is not a popularity contest," he argues. "There are people who are not comfortable with change, but over time these waves settle down and people start to enjoy swimming in the newly defined pool."

Disarmingly, he laughs at his own overstretched metaphor before explaining that one of his great aims is to liberate Barclays employees from bureaucracy so that they can do their jobs better. "Too often, people avoid change because it might disrupt those who are underperforming."

How Idzik goes down with your average Barclays bank manager in Chipping Norton is a little too early to tell. But his appointment last year was greeted with a great deal of suspicion by Barclays watchers, largely because of his background. As a partner at the consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, he was brought in to advise on the restructuring of Barclays' underperforming investment bank, BZW, in the late 1990s. A new entity, Barclays Capital, emerged under the leadership of Bob Diamond, the ex-Morgan Stanley banker, who then hired his fellow American to be COO of the new investment bank. Five years later, Diamond became president of Barclays, a move that many in the City see as making him at least as influential in the group as its chief executive, John Varley. Shortly afterwards, Idzik became COO of the entire bank.

Idzik is keen to stress that he was appointed by Varley - peppering references to "John" all the way through the interview. "I don't think it occurs to anybody that Barclays is run by anybody but John," he argues.

He also underlines his long-standing working relationship with Matt Barrett, Barclays' chairman and the architect of the transformation of the stodgy clearer. Idzik points out that, while a consultant, he worked for nearly three years on two separate projects for Bank of Montreal while Barrett was running the Canadian lender.

The other concern people have is that Idzik - along with Diamond and Barclays' newly appointed head of UK retail banking, Deanna Oppenheimer - are American, while Barrett is Canadian. They think this isn't right for a British bank.

But Idzik contends that Barclays is a global bank that happens to be headquartered in the UK. In fact, following last year's acquisition of Absa in South Africa, only 40 per cent of the bank's 115,000 staff are now UK based. "We are going for the best talent in the world. It doesn't matter if some of that talent is from the US or some of it is from India or wherever."

However, despite this strong international flavour, Idzik argues, it is important for the bank to stay close to its roots. "The British history and tradition gives Barclays a strength that is measurable. Our connection with our community comes from being part of that community for so long. You can't buy that sort of franchise."

Barclays' Britishness may be deeply rooted, but one of the objectives that Varley has set out for the bank is that at least half its revenues should come from outside the UK (the current figure is a third). Developing new products and business areas, along with modest acquisitions such as Absa and the Spanish bank Zaragozano in 2003, will go some way towards this. But analysts at the investment bank Citigroup recently reckoned that Barclays would need to spend in the region of £16bn to £19bn on acquisitions to reach Varley's target.

Idzik will not comment on figures, as Barclays' full-year results are due to be announced in a month's time, but he argues that the bank is not afraid of making acquisitions - even big "transformational" deals, which it has avoided in the past.

"Will we do an acquisition? It depends on the deal and if the price is right," he says. "Even small deals can give you a lot of management headaches."

A year into the job of transforming the culture of a bank with 316 years of history, Idzik admits it can be hard to judge how much progress he is making: "Some days I feel it is one step forward and two steps back. But I get regular feedback from the boss and he's very clear we're moving in the right direction."

Idzik is a classic transatlantic executive, one of many who are now leading British business. He hardly hides this, sporting cufflinks with the Union Jack on one side and the Stars and Stripes on the other, and having both a baseball and a cricket bat in his office. But he has yet to go native.

"There's a reasonable chance that I'll live outside America for the rest of my life," he concedes, "but when I walk into my mom's house, there are the smells and the feeling, and I know America is home."

BIOGRAPHY

Age: 44

Education: University of Notre Dame, Indiana; University of Chicago (MBA)

CAREER

1985-99: Consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton

1999-2004: Chief operating officer, Barclays Capital

2004-present: Chief operating officer, Barclays plc

Interests: Tennis, music, films and New World wines

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