LONDON (Reuters) - New Zealander Ross McEwan shocked Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L) investors in March with a blunt message in his first presentation in London: there are no good British banks.
RBS had hired McEwan to shake up retail banking and neither he nor his audience knew that five months later he would be promoted to run the entire bank - one of the toughest jobs in British business.
McEwan, whose appointment as chief executive was announced on Friday, is considered a safe, politically acceptable choice to lead a bank that is 81-percent owned by the government.
He will need to quickly build ties with regulators and lawmakers as he gets RBS into a position where the government can sell its stake at a profit, his top priority.
With the future of RBS increasingly seen in retail and commercial banking, McEwan fits a trend for retail bankers to get the top job, such as Barclays’ (BARC.L) chief executive Antony Jenkins and Lloyds’ (LLOY.L) Antonio Horta-Osorio.
“McEwan’s appointment makes sense if you are looking at somebody who fits into the mould of an Antony Jenkins template, a retail-focused banker. When you hear Jenkins or Antonio Horta-Osorio speaking the tone is very customer-focused,” said a source with knowledge of the recruitment process.
McEwan has kept a low profile since arriving at RBS last September. He moved to the Edinburgh-based bank after missing out on the top job at Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA.AX), where he had run retail banking for five years. He has worked in the financial services industry in Australia and New Zealand for more than 25 years.
McEwan may be a New Zealander, but his Scottish name could endear him to the bank’s heartland.
“Reviresco” is the McEwan, or McEwen, clan family motto which translates as: “I grow strong again”.
While most of the major restructuring was done by outgoing chief executive Stephen Hester, who brought RBS back from the brink of collapse before being ousted by the government, there is still a long “to do” list waiting for McEwan.
A keen cyclist and water skier, McEwan is a big fan of the All Blacks, the world’s leading rugby team. He played basketball for Massey University, one of New Zealand’s top universities, where he studied business and met his wife, Stephanie, who played on the women’s basketball team.
He has admitted that while at Massey he failed an accounting exam twice and, like many other students, spent long hours in the Fitz pub, gym and cafeteria.
McEwan has a relaxed, personable manner but a blunt approach to business, according to people who know him.
That was clear when he told investors and analysts at the March presentation he had been shocked by what he had found in British banking.
“Having come into this market six months ago I’ve been quite surprised at how bad this industry is from a retail banking perspective.” That view had upset many of his staff but was undeniable based on industry complaints data, he said.
“I would even go to say that there’s not a good retail bank in the UK and our job is to create that,” he said.
As well as poor treatment of customers - shown by an insurance mis-selling scandal that has cost UK banks 15 billion pounds ($22.7 billion) in compensation - UK banks also lag behind in their use of technology and were too complex, McEwan said.
Outgoing CEO Hester said on Friday he had kept the promise he made McEwan and his wife when he was trying to tempt them to leave Australia last year.
“I promised him an adventure and I think he will accept that an adventure is what we’ve delivered,” Hester said. ($1 = 0.6596 British pounds)
Additional reporting by Matt Scuffham; Editing by Erica Billingham