Using a rare hire from a Wall Street firm, HSBC is pushing hard to become the top European-based investment bank while its regional rivals struggle with regulatory fines and falling revenues.
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Former Goldman Sachs banker Matthew Westerman, who took over as head of the Global Banking division in May, has made sweeping changes in the drive to steal market share in a business area where HSBC lags most of its major peers.
The London-based lender wants to capitalize on the waning fortunes of its German and Swiss competitors Deutsche Bank , Credit Suisse and UBS . HSBC, which traditionally promotes senior staff internally, hinted at these ambitions in announcing in February that it had recruited Westerman under a restructuring exercise.
"This is our opportunity, a real opportunity to gain significant market share," Samir Assaf, head of Global Banking and Markets, wrote in a memo to staff.
In the five months since he joined, Westerman has cut dozens of senior bankers and restructured the entire division to bring teams closer together, according to 11 current and former HSBC staff interviewed by Reuters.
British-born Westerman has also cracked down on staff who don't spend enough time with clients in the push to bring more business, promoting an underused system for logging visits and deals.
The Global Banking division caters to HSBC's biggest corporate clients, offering advice on mergers and finance, cash management, trade finance and other services.
Seen by some HSBC bankers and headhunters as a possible successor to Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver, Westerman has moved fast to stamp his authority on the unit - and also ruffled a few feathers with the depth of his job cuts.
"Matthew's mandate is clear, and appears to come from the very top, but many of us feel the cuts have gone too far and impacted morale," a senior executive in the banking division that Westerman runs, told Reuters.
TIME TO SHINE
Westerman, 51, was hired directly by Gulliver, according to three people with knowledge of the matter, to run the newly-created global banking division that contributed $1.8 billion of the bank's $29.5 billion revenues in January-June.
HSBC shares are up 16 percent in the year to date, whereas those of Deutsche, Credit Suisse and UBS have fallen an average 37 percent. However, it is still too early to assess the impact of Westerman on HSBC's performance.
Aside from the problems besetting its continental rivals, HSBC's strong historical presence in Asia is an advantage.
The rising prominence of Chinese companies on the global stage plays to HSBC's strengths, as seen in the bank's lead role in Chemchina's $43 billion bid for Swiss seeds and pesticides group Syngenta .
But Westerman's remit is tough: to even out the bank's performance in investment banking products, and boost revenues from collaboration between its sprawling business units.
Gulliver said in 2013 he wants HSBC to make an additional $2 billion in revenues from this kind of collaboration by 2016. Such joined-up thinking has long been a problem at HSBC, which has 250,000 employees compared with 35,000 for Goldman Sachs.
Assaf, who is Westerman's direct boss, said in a mid-year update that 'synergy revenues' in the Global Banking and Markets division had actually fallen year-on-year by 10 percent due to 'market uncertainty'.
In the core financial advisory business, Westerman has taken over a lopsided operation: HSBC is relatively strong globally in debt underwriting but a laggard in managing share offerings.
HSBC ranks seventh in Thomson Reuters data for the volume of the global debt deals it has handled for the year to date, the same position as the January-September period last year.
However, HSBC fell to 20th in January-September 2016 from 9th a year earlier for underwriting initial public offerings globally.
Westerman joined Goldman Sachs in 2000 and became its top investment banker in Asia from 2012 to 2015, before returning to Britain as chairman of investment banking for Europe.
On joining HSBC, he immediately began a clear out. High-profile departures included head of corporate finance John Crompton, global head of M&A Florian Fautz and vice chairman of global banking and markets Spencer Lake.
Robin Phillips, who is co-head of the global banking division alongside Westerman, was involved in the reshuffle but has taken a more back-seat role since, three senior HSBC sources said.
Westerman already knew HSBC well as at Goldman Sachs he acted as its corporate broker, an advisory role common in Britain, and worked on its record $18.9 billion 2009 rights issue.
Colleagues said the Oxford University history graduate has brought a rigorous, analytical approach to performance and work habits. Every inch the sharp-suited Goldman Sachs alumnus, Westerman enjoys flashes of dry, self-aware humour about his image.
That is most notable when comparing his arrival with that of John Studzinski, a former Morgan Stanley executive whose reign from 2003-2006 saw a turbulent and ill-fated drive to build a star-studded investment bank inside HSBC.
Westerman laughs off the comparison, a fourth senior HSBC source said, saying his style is different from the Boston-born socialite known as 'Studs' to friends and colleagues.
Rather than hiring star names, Westerman has reined in overly independent banking units by merging them and changing reward structures to promote collaboration, insiders said.
Westerman has directed a drive for staff to make more use of HSBC's global system for tracking how much time they spend with customers and what products the clients have been sold.
Such management systems are widely used at other investment banks, a fifth senior London-based HSBC source said, but had been underused at HSBC until Westerman's arrival.
"He has ruffled some feathers by tracking very closely how bankers are spending their time in a way that some people weren't used to," said a London-based recruiter familiar with HSBC.
The June restructuring he oversaw after barely a month in the job brought the team covering financial sponsors on to the same floor as those doing leveraged finance, a different source familiar with the move said, as an example of Westerman's push for more direct collaboration.
Westerman - whose wife Sian is a senior adviser to investment banking boutique Rothshchild - is an almost omnipresent figure at HSBC's Canary Wharf head office when not travelling the globe, although he plays the odd round of golf and is a trustee of the Imperial War Museum in London.
"He's given people a kick," said a former executive in the banking division who left HSBC recently. "But HSBC has always been resistant to change, a lot of people are waiting to see if this is for real or can they go back to doing things the old way in a year's time."
(Reporting By Lawrence White, additional reporting by Anjuli Davies in London, Carmel Crimmins in New York, Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong, editing by Sinead Cruise and David Stamp)