At dinner with former Marks & Spencer chief Lord Rose, Sir Michael Parkinson and their wives, Sir Victor Blank recalls the conversation taking a Monty Pythonesque turn.
“It almost got down to ‘my background was poorer than your background’,” he says. For his part, Blank, who scaled the City heights until he led Lloyds into the controversial acquisition of HBOS, was brought up in a modest three-bed house in Stockport, the grandson of Russian Jews who came to Britain at the turn of the last century. Nor did Rose, who spent some of his early years living in a caravan in Warwickshire, and Parkinson, the son of a Yorkshire coal miner, have much of a leg up to the top of their professions.
“We were pondering how easy that was today and I think the answer is it is probably still possible as long as you can get out of first base. This, Blank bangs a document on the table, “gets you to first base.”
It is the annual report of the Social Mobility Foundation, which Blank has chaired for the past two-and-a-half years. As the debate over inequality – social and financial – rages, it is an organisation doing its bit to level the playing field. The SMF scours schools for bright, disadvantaged pupils – eligible for free school meals and heading for at least an A and two Bs at A-level – and offer mentoring in the sixth form, work placements, often with residential costs covered, and guidance as to which university courses to apply for and how to prepare a personal statement.
The social mobility problem, he says, is not just one of wealth, but ambition and expectation. “Some teachers don’t want to distinguish between those in the same class,” says Blank, 72, rumpled and thoughtful. “Or there is a lack of parental ambition: parents want their kids to get out and earn money, they don’t believe they will do well if they have to go to London or Oxbridge.”
Backed by City firms such as JPMorgan, Clifford Chance and KPMG, the SMF helped 900 students this year and Blank thinks it will be 1,200 next. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found the programme increased the likelihood of participants going to a top university by a quarter.
It is one of the projects that has kept Blank busy since his Lloyds exit in 2009. He will be forever associated with the credit crunch: for marrying Lloyds to an ailing HBOS, a deal that means Lloyds is still 21 per cent taxpayer-owned after a £20bn bailout. But Blank says the deal’s rationale is now showing through. “The Government has got its value back, or prospectively back. Dividends are being restored. The bank is making £8bn or so. It is the largest bank in the UK. All of that is to the good.
“The people who still feel aggrieved are the shareholders of Lloyds, who think that had it been left on its own it would have carried on as before with the big dividend and the share price continuing to grow. Not the case.” When the credit crunch swept in, he says: “Everyone was over-borrowed. If there hadn’t been consolidation, other banks would have fallen and the value for Lloyds shareholders would have gone, or been badly damaged.”
Today, as an outsider looking in, “The biggest disappointment is that the Government and the banking sector still seem to have failed to find common ground in where they go,” as new regulations take shape to prevent future failures. “The weight of regulatory supervision on the whole of the sector, the cost of that, and the time it takes, has probably gone too far,” says Blank. “I just wonder whether there is enough of a high-level sensible view taken on an industry which really needs to be made to work for the economy.”
A shareholder action group is suing Lloyds and its former management for allegedly covering up a £10bn loan made to HBOS before the takeover. Blank answers the charge: “It is a long time since I practised law, but I believe there was an incredibly able, conscientious board of directors at Lloyds advised by the very best people and I believe all the right things were done at the right time and in the right way.”
Some say Blank’s City career – effortlessly moving through the gears of corporate life – was prematurely scuppered by the Lloyds blow-up. He demurs. “I’m not sure I would have done another big job. I think Lloyds was pretty much the height of anything.”
Now, he busies himself with the SMF, and is also a trustee of Saïd Business School and adviser to private equity group TPG among other, mainly charitable, roles. And he still hosts an annual charity cricket match, at his Oxfordshire manor, set up with Sir David Frost 27 years ago.
“David came to see me one afternoon, with a cigar, having had an extremely good lunch, saying ‘Victor look can you help me?’” Blank recounts. He wanted to raise money for a charity, now called Wellbeing of Women, which funds research into premature births, IVF and the menopause.
The idea of a pro-am cricket match was born but Blank thought little more of it, until Frost called a few months later, saying: “I’ve got Imran Khan, Clive Lloyd, Dennis Lillee: are you ready to go?” The event raised £340,000 last year. One of the teams still runs out in the late Frost’s name and Sir Michael Parkinson umpires.
Sir Victor Blank: CV
Education: Stockport Grammar school; modern history, St Catherine’s College, Oxford.
Career so far: Trainee, then partner, aged 26, at Clifford-Turner (now Clifford Chance). Corporate finance head at Charterhouse bank, later ran the firm. Chairman of retail conglomerate GUS, Trinity Mirror and Lloyds TSB, leaving in 2009 after merger with Hbos. Chairman of Social Mobility Foundation in 2012.
Personal: With wife Sylvia, has three children and five grandchildren. Relaxes with theatre, cricket and Man Utd.Reuse content