Marcus Agius: Eating and greeting is motto for bank boss

A Day in the Life: Marcus Agius admits that he 'eats a lot for Barclays'. The chairman remains in bullish mood despite having to eat humble pie in the battle for Dutch bank ABN Amro.

By Sean Farrell
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:53


Being chairman of Barclays involves "an awful lot of eating", says Marcus Agius, who has headed the board of Britain's third-biggest bank since the start of this year. The feasting starts at The Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly where Mr Agius meets fellow City grandee Sir Nigel Rudd, Barclays' deputy chairman, for breakfast and one of their regular catch-ups. The Ritz is a breakfast haunt for Mr Agius because it is on the way from his Chelsea home to Barclays' head office at Canary Wharf in Docklands. After an hour, he gets back in his chauffeur-driven car and resumes his commuting routine of the newspapers, the Today programme, phone calls – and emailing. "There is this thing called the Blackberry. It's essential," he enthuses.


Barclays has been locked in a battle with Royal Bank of Scotland's consortium to buy ABN Amro of the Netherlands for the last six months. Every morning, the Barclays team and their advisers have met for "morning prayers", a conference call to discuss the latest developments that has included more than 100 people. This will be one of the last of these meetings because the prayers went unheeded and Barclays was forced to admit defeat at the hands of the consortium after its share-based offer came in about €9bn below the rival, mostly cash bid.

"It was a tremendous opportunity which we would have been wrong not to have pursued with vigour, which we did," Mr Agius says. "It has put senior management under a lot of stress. We have been tested as to whether we could respond to this kind of challenge and we have passed with flying colours." He emphasises that Barclays maintained its financial discipline and was determined not to overpay.

Failed takeovers can unsettle companies and spark recriminations, but Mr Agius says Barclays has not succumbed to these pressures. "My job as chairman is to make sure the whole board is absolutely as one in its response to the end of the process. One of the things that has been most gratifying has been how solid the support of the board has been, both executives and non-executives."


Mr Agius goes through the mail with his PA of 20 years, Julie Orchard – "The anniversary is in my diary in large letters – subtle hint". With the coming of email and the Blackberry, the only hard-copy post Mr Agius receives is junk mail, "stiffies" – invitations to functions – and letters from customers.

"A lot of customers write to me in frustration, and they are astonished when I call them straight back. I say I'm sorry that they have a problem, I'm on the case and we will get it sorted out as fast as possible. It's something John Varley encouraged me to do and I get that done as quickly as possible."


A meeting with Carlos Martinez de Campos, the chairman of Barclays' business in Spain, where the head of retail banking left last week.

"Carlos was passing through and there was something he wanted to talk about. I have no executive responsibilities but I like to get a sense of the dynamics in parts of the business if I can. A chairman can act as a senior counsel."


Another internal meeting, this time to work on a speech for a dinner – more eating – in Southampton later this month with about 150 local businessmen and Barclays business bankers in the city.

"I am very much here to make myself as useful as I can to Barclays. One way is to get out there and help our operations. It is a good way of establishing relationships, and you hear at first hand what is going on out there."


Mr Agius likes to meet individual members of Barclays' senior executive team at least once a month. "There is no set agenda. I say, 'What is happening? What is on your mind?'"

Today he is talking to Bob Diamond, who runs the Barclays Capital investment bank and Barclays Global Investors, the fund management business. Barclays Capital has been under the spotlight because its rapid growth has been fuelled by the booming debt markets that went into meltdown in August.

In his public statements, Mr Diamond has tried to reassure investors that Barclays Capital has plenty of sources of growth and that he remains confident about the future.

Mr Agius, a former investment banker and chairman of Lazards in London, says Barclays Capital has had "an interesting summer" but adds: "One of the most startling characteristics of the credit crunch was the difference between what was happening on the ground and the perception from outside."


A business lunch with the chairman, chief executive and finance director of Compass, the catering and support services group – an important client for Barclays Capital.

"I eat a lot for Barclays but it is a wonderful way of hearing what is going on in clients' minds. We have an excellent kitchen here and the portions are quite small, which is necessary."

To accompany the lunch of smoked salmon followed by brill fish, Mr Agius treats his guests to the view from Barclays' tower. From his office on the 31st floor, you can see the arch of the new Wembley Stadium to the west and the site in Stratford, east London, where the 2012 Olym-pics will be held. "We have breathtaking views here, and people are blown away by them."


Barclays has launched its new five-year corporate responsibility programme, Banking on Brighter Futures. The bank has pledged $150m (£75m) to support 1,500 projects around the world to combat deprivation and will enable employees to volunteer 150,000 hours of their time to help fight financial exclusion.

At a briefing session, Mr Agius meets two staff members involved with Barclays' corporate responsibility work. Jessica Baylis, a single mother in her early 20s who dropped out of her A-levels, joined a Barclaycard project to help lone mothers get into work and is now employed three days a week at Barclaycard.

Mr Agius says: "I was very impressed by how full of confidence she was. There is nothing more exhausting than young children. When my children were young I was astonished that you couldn't turn them off."

He also met Don Mbithi, an employee in Kenya who works on a project helping young people to set up businesses. He was particularly struck by work done in the slums of Kibera, where Barclays staff helped young prostitutes set up a soap-making cooperative. "They didn't know how else to get money... They now have an alternative to their previous way of life."


A phone call with Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, where Mr Agius is the senior independent director on the corporation's revamped board. He talks to Mr Thompson frequently and gets regular briefings on how the BBC is dealing with the credibility questions facing broadcasters after fakery was exposed in phone-ins and other parts of the industry.


A meeting to discuss his schedule for a trip to Asia next month. "One of the things one does as chairman is to visit all parts of the business. Barclays is a huge business, and a visit from the chairman and his wife can be very helpful for people in our international business. And it makes them feel part of the business, which they are."


Mr Agius has a phone conversation with Lucy Blythe, director of development at the Foundation & Friends of Kew Gardens, where he is a trustee. They discuss plans for a dinner to educate 150 to 200 "senior opinion formers" about the work of Kew's scientists on climate change. "The missing part of the debate on climate change is that carbon monoxide has always been produced by man and absorbed by flora, and it doesn't help if we continue with deforestation and reduce the ability of the world to absorb carbon monoxide."


A meeting to discuss his itinerary for the International Monetary Fund's meeting in Washington this month.


He leaves earlier than usual because he and his wife Kate are hosting a dinner, though not for Barclays. On the way home, he reads a draft Confederation of British Industry report on climate change.


Mr and Mrs Agius have invited a dozen chief executives, chairmen and other high-level people to a dinner with Alison Richard, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, where Mr Agius took his undergraduate degree.


After the guests have left,Mr Agius deals with a few emails and then gets ready for bed.His relatively short day has packed in seven meetings, three working meals, ringing customers and two non-Barclays business calls.

"If you are a chairman, you don't just turn up once a month for a board meeting. A non-executive director is there to help at all times. It is the variety that is very stimulating, but also the responsibility," he says.

The CV

Name: Marcus Agius

Born: 22 July 1946

Educated: St George's College, Weybridge; Trinity Hall, Cambridge; Harvard Business School

Employment: Worked as a mechanical engineer at Vickers before winning a scholarship to Cambridge. Joined Lazard in 1972, leaving at the end of 2006 after five years as London chairman. Chairman of BAA, 2002-2006. Joined Barclays' board in September 2006 and became chairman on 1 January

Outside interests: Senior non-executive director of the BBC; Trustee to the board of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and chairman of The Foundation and Friends of the gardens

Family: Married, two daughters

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