Quintessential HSBC Insider Takes the Helm

By Margot Patrick Features Dow Jones Newswires

When a teenage John Flint decided he wanted to become a banker, his high school headmaster wrote to a contact at HSBC Holdings PLC for advice. The reply came back: young Flint should go to college, then enter HSBC's international officers program and prepare to travel the world.

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Mr. Flint, now 49, duly did both. On Thursday, he was named by HSBC Chairman Mark Tucker as the bank's new chief executive, replacing Stuart Gulliver, in a vote for continuity at the Asia-focused bank and for Mr. Flint's homegrown values.

To get the top spot, Mr. Flint saw off rivals from inside and outside the bank. Mr. Tucker's outsider status, he is the bank's first externally-hired chairman, meant analysts expected the new CEO to be Mr. Flint or another internal candidate. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Tucker--who started this month, breaking with a century-old tradition of the bank promoting from within--said Mr. Flint is "the best and optimal fit" for the job.

Now the head of retail banking and wealth management, Mr. Flint is quintessentially HSBC. After joining its international leadership program out of college, he learned the ropes in bank branches, trading rooms and at the bank's treasury department, in cities including Hong Kong, London, New York and Bangkok. The assignments often had him working alongside Mr. Gulliver, and he was the outgoing CEO's chief of staff for a year before taking his current role in 2013.

Colleagues describe Mr. Flint as sharp, capable and mild-mannered, with some of the same instinct and skill Mr. Gulliver is known for in managing risk and market shocks. Those skills were honed in Asia's financial crisis in the 1990s, when a young Mr. Flint was head of global markets at the bank's Indonesian arm and led it to profits despite the turmoil.

As part of HSBC's elite cadre of international officers--later rebranded by the bank as international managers to drop the military connotation--Mr. Flint moved up the ranks and has long been seen as a possible CEO.

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He is expected to continue on much the same track as Mr. Gulliver with respect to the bank's strategy. Mr. Tucker said elements of it may be "enhanced and accelerated." Efforts already under way include investing more in Asia and rebuilding profitability in the U.S. and Mexico. HSBC made a disastrous foray into the U.S. in the early 2000s, buying a large subprime lender just before the financial crisis. Its business in the country is now a mix of retail branches in key markets such as New York and California, and commercial and investment banking.

Mr. Flint, who as a child lived in Saudi Arabia for 11 years while his father was a teacher there, has "vision and passion" for HSBC, Mr. Tucker said. HSBC said Mr. Flint wasn't available for an interview Thursday.

In a statement, Mr. Flint said he was humbled and excited. He said the bank "must continue to innovate and accelerate" its pace of change.

Last year, Mr. Flint traveled with other HSBC executives and research analysts from other banks and brokers on a trip through China's Pearl River Delta region. One analyst who hadn't met him before said he was struck by his down-to-earth manner and self-deprecating humor, which the analyst said was a contrast to Mr. Gulliver. Mr. Gulliver, 58, said in March he would retire in 2018. He also has been at the bank his entire career, and he too came up through the international managers' program.

Analysts say Mr. Flint and Mr. Tucker, who started as chairman Oct. 1, should enjoy some positive momentum as they take their roles. Rising interest rates are boosting returns on HSBC's large deposit base, while much of the heavy lifting around improving compliance systems and exiting loss-making businesses is done now.

Write to Margot Patrick at margot.patrick@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 12, 2017 10:14 ET (14:14 GMT)