By Lawrence White, Sinead Cruise and Anshuman Daga
LONDON/SINGAPORE (Reuters) -Georges Elhedery’s appointment as HSBC’s chief financial officer caps a journey that’s taken him from war-torn Lebanon to frontrunner for the top job at Europe’s biggest bank. It’s also surprised investors and raised questions about HSBC’s direction.
Known at HSBC for his strategic vision more than for his accounting skills, Elhedery has climbed the ranks of HSBC’s investment bank since joining in 2005. With his latest promotion the 48-year-old is just one step away from the top role.
“It was a surprise to us,” said Hugh Young, Asia chairman of Aberdeen Standard Investments, one of HSBC’s top 25 shareholders. CEO Noel Quinn has done a good job but investors are impatient for faster progress, Young said.
Elhedery’s move to CFO comes at a difficult juncture for HSBC. Since Quinn formally took over as CEO in March 2020, HSBC shares have dropped nearly 10%, and the company has been caught up in political tensions between the West and China.
The bank is under pressure from its biggest investor Ping An to explore options, including listing its Asia business, a move that HSBC has rebuffed.
The bank’s performance isn’t helping.
HSBC’s profits slid 42% in the third quarter as bad loans rose in the face of a darkening global economic outlook.
The bank also alarmed investors by cutting its 2023 forecast for net interest income despite a benign interest rate environment, sending its shares nearly 7% lower on Tuesday.
HSBC declined to comment for this article, as did Elhedery through an HSBC spokesperson.
Quinn earlier told Reuters: “There is no change in strategy as a consequence of these leadership changes.” He said the London-headquartered bank had succession in mind.
Under CFO Ewen Stevenson, HSBC has been trying to improve profitability by exiting business and cutting costs, a task some questioned whether Elhedery would be most adept at.
One person familiar with Elhedery said he was a skilled operator but might lack the accounting expertise typically associated with the CFO role. Elhedery’s strengths were much more in strategy and people management, another source said.
Analysts too expressed surprise at the jettisoning of Stevenson, seen as a safe pair of hands who had steered the bank through a period of restructuring as it tried to cut costs and trim its businesses around the world.
“It’s very disappointing to hear that Ewen is stepping down, he has had a transformational impact on HSBC’s cost discipline, bringing much-needed credibility to its financial targets and execution,” said Ian Gordon, analyst at Investec.
Born in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war that split its capital city into Christian East and Muslim West, Elhedery grew up with a retail banker father and teacher mother, based on past interviews he has given.
Elhedery moved to Paris to study engineering at the École Polytechnique and took a postgraduate degree in statistics and economics.
He began his career in banking as a rates trader, joined HSBC in 2005 in the Global Banking and Markets division, and rose through the ranks.
In 2016, he took over the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey region managing 10,000 staff across all the bank’s business lines and overseeing risk, financial crime, compliance and capital management.
In 2020, he became co-head of the Global Banking and Markets business, the division which houses HSBC’s trading and investment banking advisory businesses, taking over from fellow Lebanese-born, Paris-educated banker Samir Assaf.
He surprised colleagues at HSBC this year by announcing a sabbatical, characterised at the time as a break to spend time with his family and recharge his batteries.
This came as executives were moving to Hong Kong, as part of a wave of relocations by HSBC of senior roles to the bank’s biggest market.
His co-head of the investment bank Greg Guyett was left in sole charge of the business. On his return this September Elhedery said he would focus on working on projects with CEO Quinn.
A regular fixture at the bank’s Diversity and Inclusion events, according to one person, Elhedery has been seen taking equal interest in the needs of junior staffers as much as senior ranks.
He runs 10 kilometres before work every day, according to one of his former employees. That says everything about the kind of man he is, this banker told Reuters.
(Reporting By Lawrence White, Sinead Cruise and Anshuman Daga, additional reporting by Pamela Barbaglia. Editing by Jane Merriman)