The MT interview: Peter Sands

Peter Sands, the Standard Chartered chief executive has become the acceptable face of banking, delivering years of steady growth and old-fashioned virtues of client service.

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

From the moment you walk in to Standard Chartered's Basinghall Avenue headquarters in London it's obvious that this bank is different.

Other financial powerhouses like to flex some muscle, their buildings reeking of confident aggression. Instead of testosterone, there's a whiff of contemplation and spirituality about this place. In the reception, there's a full-scale, ancient shrine brought over from northern Thailand. Everywhere, there is native art from the countries where the bank operates.

It's on every wall, every corridor: a tableau here, an artefact there. None of it smacks of over-bearing expense - we're not talking eye-watering Impressionists and killer bronzes. Instead, the emphasis is on authenticity. These figures really have been carved by the children in a jungle village; this artist genuinely witnessed the scene he has conveyed.

On it goes, right up to the office of Peter Sands, the group chief executive. In his bright, airy room, the shelves are adorned with more pieces. 'It's all art of people from our parts of the world,' he says, seeing me looking about. 'It's not expensive and every four months it will move on. It's all very democratic.'

Not expensive, democratic. These are not normally words associated with senior bankers, especially where corporate image-making is concerned. 'The look and atmo are quite distinctive,' continues Sands. 'The idea is that you immediately get a sense of the parts of the world we're around.'

Even allowing for the fact that Sands speaks extremely quickly and enthusiastically, it says something about his relaxed style that he can slip into shorthand like 'atmo' so easily. The Oxford and Harvard-educated boss of a major bank he may be, but he's pretty approachable. Perhaps it's thanks to his four children, aged teens to early 20s, who ensure he stays a young and unstuffy 50.

Lean and fit-looking, he exudes energy and purpose, much of it intellectual. Married to the novelist Betsy Tobin, he's one of those people, you suspect, whose mind is always whirring.

Sands is no more your usual banker than his bank is a typical UK bank. More than 90% of its profits come from overseas, principally Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It's one of Britain's biggest banks but has no high street presence here. While rivals were left reeling by the banking crisis, Standard Chartered sailed on regardless. In February, it announced profits up 11% to $6.78bn, its ninth successive year of record results.

The son of a naval officer and an artist, he has traits of both of them: unshakeable logic coupled with romantic idealism. As a result, he's a rarity: a banker who is also something of an aesthete, as his unflashy taste attests. He sports a classless Swatch rather than the City boy's chunky Rolex. Nonetheless, Sands earned a total of $8.1m in 2011, compared with $7.8m a year earlier, but, unlike bosses at some rival banks, no one can say he has been rewarded for failure.

His parents were British, but they were both born in Asia, his father in Malaysia and his mother in India, and Sands spent part of his childhood in Malaysia. His formal education comprised the Crown Woods comprehensive in Eltham, south-east London, followed by the international Pearson College, Vancouver. As he once described himself: 'I'm a Brit with close family ties and an affinity to other parts of the world as well.'

Then came Oxford, where he graduated from Brasenose College in 1984. He also has a masters in public administration from Harvard, where he was a Harkness scholar.

For much of his subsequent career he wasn't a banker at all. He worked in the Foreign Office ('I wanted to do something international'), then spent 13 years at McKinsey, focusing on financial services and technology. He's straight from McKinsey casting: clever, fast-talking and confident. He's also got the detached air of the consultant, someone who can take a dispassionate view, who isn't afraid of mentally piecing together all the pieces of a very complicated jigsaw.

There seems to be a trend here. Stephen Green at HSBC, which is often seen as Standard Chartered's closest rival, was ex-civil service and McKinsey. Adair Turner, the head of the Financial Services Authority, is a McKinsey alumnus too.

What characterises them all is a willingness to speak about decency ahead of financial gain and a firm anchor in the real world. As a result, in the past they may have been viewed askance by some in the City. Indeed, they still can be - for old habits die hard.

But, given what has happened since 2008, there is a sense of change in the air. When Goldman Sachs is forced to advertise for someone to improve its image on the web, something is afoot.

'We've got a very different culture from other financial institutions,' says Sands. 'We're extraordinarily diverse. We have 70 to 80 nationalities represented in our top 300 people. Only 3,000 of our 87,000-strong workforce are British. We're very, very diverse.'

That diversity comes through, he says, in all manner of ways: fish tanks, for example. 'We've a fish tank in every trading room in the world. Why? Because fish, especially Chinese fish, symbolise wealth and money.'

The cultural difference expresses itself as well in the bank's relatively horizontal structure. 'We want people here to feel empowered. This is a flat organisation. We're one big network where everything is that bit more informal.' Elsewhere, he says, 'it's all about command and control. Here, I get emails from the junior staff and I answer them. If I want something, I don't think twice, I go direct to that person. I don't have to go via the head of consumer banking, if I want to talk to someone in consumer banking, for example. Other banks are normally very hierarchical.'

The third element of cultural difference, after diversity and flat reporting lines, he says, comes in 'the idea of a bank with a role to play in the communities in which we live and work. The notion of employee volunteering is one of our most deeply held beliefs.'

It's something he and his colleagues are extremely proud of. So each year he makes a trip, taking either sell-side analysts or buy-side investors (they alternate) to a community project Standard Chartered is involved in.

Where does it stem from, this difference - it's all very well saying you're different, I point out, but why?

He nods in response. 'Those elements have always been there. Diversity is in the history of the bank. Mervyn (Davies, his predecessor as CEO) started the process of unlocking our cultural strengths. Some were latent, some needed changing. When he took over there was a lack of confidence. He made a significant cultural shift, I've built on that.'

You know, he says, leaning forward, 'that culture proved to be a strength in the banking crisis.'

How? 'Because in our culture, bad news travels fast. We were able to respond immediately - instead of burying bad news, people were very positive about the challenge they were facing.'

There's a fourth aspect to his bank, he says. 'We're very collaborative. This isn't an environment where you succeed by being macho. Our strength is our people and how they pull together.'

Fine words but, doubtless, other financial institutions, if asked, would echo them. 'It's true, it was not an accident of history that helped us but deliberate decisions we'd taken.'

Such as? 'We ran a different model from virtually all other British banks. They had assets-to-deposits ratios of over 100%. HSBC and ourselves operated at well below 100%. In our case, our A/D ratio is 76%. We're accused of not leveraging our balance sheet enough.'

He shakes his head and smiles. 'It's true. So for every dollar we receive on deposit we lend 76 cents. At Northern Rock, for every dollar it received, it was lending $3, at HBOS they were lending $1.80.' He lets the words sink in.

'Ours is a fundamentally different business. It's not just that we're in markets with different dynamics - we've also taken deliberate decisions to run ourselves differently.' His bank, for instance, actually decreed in 2008-09 it would not take on any new clients. 'We were determined to use our capital base to help existing clients. We were driven by our philosophy. How you cement a relationship with clients is how you work with them when things get tough.

'I can give you lots of examples. One is the KMO. Chinese entrepreneurs went over to Hong Kong, they had no money but were able to set up businesses and borrow from our Kowloon Main Office. Then they formed what's like a club, the KMO, and they socialise and do business together. Now a new generation is coming through. I will go and meet them. It's a very enjoyable way of doing business. It works because we're client-led, not transaction-led. I can go and tell them it's not a good idea to be doing something and they will listen. We've got many relationships like that.'

Having been criticised for being too conservative, Standard Chartered is now held up as an example for others. 'In future, all banks will run lower A/D ratios,' he says, grinning.

Like his bank, Sands too has become an industry leader. When disaster struck, it was not the higher-profile chiefs to whom the UK government turned for urgent assistance but Sands. The truth is, those others were titans no more, brought low by their own hubris.

Sands, the non-banker, was one of the architects of the state bailout scheme. But he has little sympathy for the mess the banks found themselves in. He's very much in the no-such-thing-as-too-big-to-fail camp. 'There are strong arguments for letting banks fail,' he has said. 'It improves the discipline of the system.'

He's not a believer in all banks being the same, either - 'a system that promotes homogeneity is fine until something goes wrong and then everyone has done the same thing'.

Standard Chartered, he is determined, will set its own course. 'Our international business is bigger for us than any bank in the world. Others have their home business and then they grow internationally. We have our international business and then our home.'

That sheer geographic spread means dealing with lots of time zones, so Sands leaves his north London home in Highbury (he's got a season ticket at Arsenal) early, getting to the office around 7.15am, unless he is away - he spends half the year travelling. He can't even point to one dominant market from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. 'We don't have one,' he says. 'Again, it's why our people must collaborate - because we build our business networks across borders.'

It's also a stronger bank, he says, than a decade ago. How does the Sands company differ from the one he inherited from Davies? 'I worked very closely with him (Davies was chairman from 2006 to 2009). What I've sought to do, in a different market environment, is to build on what we achieved together. We're much bigger now - when I joined we were 27,000 to 28,000 people, today we're 87,000. At the end of 2001, we reported $1bn in profit, in 2011 it was $6.8bn.' Last year's performance also included wholesale banking profits of over $5bn for the first time, on group revenues of $17.6bn, up from $16.1bn in 2010.

It's a winning performance that has helped to head off recent criticism of its pay policy. Corporate governance watchdog PIRC recommended shareholders vote against the board's plans to give the bank's top 13 employees a $92m total reward pot. But at the AGM on 9 May, only 7.4% did so, a vote of confidence in the board. StanChart's chairman, John Peace, has also voiced his opposition to the proposed EU cap on bankers' bonuses.

The transition from Davies to himself, says Sands, has been a 'story of continuity - the strategy we articulated in 2003 has not changed. Our focus remains on Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with the aspiration to be the best international bank in the world.'

The focus, too, he says, is firmly 'on clients - there is no proprietary trading at Standard Chartered'. And to grow organically. 'We've made some acquisitions and they've been helpful, but they're not the key driver.'

Continues Sands: 'The fundamentals of what we do have stayed the same. We've encapsulated it in our branding "here for good". That says two things - we're trying to do the right thing, we want to run a business that makes a contribution to society and the economy, and we want to develop a long-term client franchise.'

What about Adair Turner, I point out, didn't his fellow McKinseyite describe much of what banks do as 'socially useless'? He did, acknowledges Sands, and 'the good thing about that was he triggered an examination of what banks are for. Adair did the industry a service in sharpening the debate about what the benefit of banking is. It's certainly the case that some had lost sight of what they were supposed to be doing.'

Not Standard Chartered. 'We're very focused on what we do and how we make a contribution to society.' To that end, he says, academics from INSEAD were asked to evaluate what Standard Chartered does for the greater good. They examined two markets, Ghana and Indonesia, looking, for example, at how they benefited local SMEs. Although some areas of activity were hard to measure, the conclusion was positive.

Take, for example, a hypothetical mining project the bank is asked to back. 'It may be good because it provides employment, but there may be an environmental downside so we might not get involved. There are a lot of debates on subjects like this. Our policy is to take issues head-on and always be accountable for what we do.'

The implication is that other banks don't do this or if they do they pay lip service to it.

Sands, it is true, is not like most senior bankers I've met. Partly, that's down to the organisation; partly, it's down to him and the fact that he isn't a banker by background. 'I think when they recruited me they were keen to bring in someone who'd not been infected elsewhere, who would take on the bank's culture.'

It's that word again. He shrugs. 'It's the case, if you don't eat and breathe it, you don't survive for very long.'

Potential recruits must satisfy a check-list. 'Do they care about what we care about? Do they share our values? Does their style mean they will integrate with others and be able to work in this place? That's hugely important.' All senior employees joining the bank are put through a programme, which Sands participates in, educating them on the bank's beliefs.

Isn't there a danger, though, of dissipation, of StanChart growing so big that all the principled stuff gets reduced or, worse, forgotten completely?

'We've gone from 27,000 people to 87,000 people and it hasn't happened. We might be a lot bigger but we put great store on cohesion.' This, he admits, is what keeps him awake at night. 'How do we keep the same discipline and cultural cohesion? The fact we've managed to do it so far doesn't mean we can keep it.'

The biggest risk the bank faces, he maintains, is not growth but 'the avalanche of regulatory change around the world'. He pauses. 'It's not that I'm against it - I'm very much in favour, there was a need for it. And good banks have nothing to fear from regulators. But there's so much going on and so little co-ordination that the risk from unintended consequences is enormous.'

There are those, I say, who question why Standard Chartered stays in a country that has become so profoundly anti-banking. He looks askance. 'We're here because of our history - we were chartered here, our first banking licence was granted here; and it's costly for us to go anywhere else. Sure, investors ask us and it could make good sense to move - there are incremental costs in being here. We've an obligation as a board to consider the options carefully and review the pros and cons of being here, but we've no plans to move.'

What about potential moves for Sands himself? Touted in some quarters as the next Governor of the Bank of England, he's having none of it. 'This is an excellent job, I'm very happy with it. As Standard Chartered, we can have enormous impact, working for our clients, working for shareholders and helping develop other countries.'

Even so, you can't help but think that if he was offered such a post he would take it - his restless intellect would win out. He clearly loved being at the centre of the bank rescue plan. And while he claims to enjoy the relentless travelling, it must take its toll.

But he insists: 'From the end of 2006 when it all started to fall apart to the end of 2011, we've had five years of crisis but we've increased our own lending to customers by 91%. It's almost doubled, and our profits have increased by 113%. That's a very different story from the one that most banks can tell.'

Underneath their dark brows his eyes sparkle. 'It's been quite a journey, but we're just as ambitious about the next chapter in our history as the last.'




  • Continue to grow without losing Standard Chartered's culture and guiding principles

  • Avoid being taken over by a bigger rival eager to gain a strong base in its markets

  • Resist the tempting offer of a plum job elsewhere in banking or in public service



1962 Born 8 January, the son of a naval officer, his mother was an artist. Schooled in London and Canada
1988 After Oxford University, he joins the Foreign Office, leaving to become a consultant for McKinsey, specialising in banking and technology
2002 Recruited by Standard Chartered CEO Mervyn Davies to be finance director
Davies leaves to become a government minister and Sands takes over as CEO
2008 Sands plays an instrumental part in rescuing the UK's banks, devising the government's bailout scheme
2011 Standard Chartered produces its ninth straight year of record profits.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How redundancies affect culture

There are ways of preventing 'survivor syndrome' derailing your recovery.

What they don't tell you about inclusive leadership

Briefing: Frances Frei was hired to fix Uber’s ‘bro culture’. Here’s her lesson for where...

Should you downsize the office?

Many businesses are preparing for a 'hybrid' workplace.

How to make your team more accountable

‘Do as I do’ works a lot better than ‘do as I say’.

Black talent isn’t hard to find: It’s just you

If you want to attract the widest range of applicants, you need to think about...

Drowning in data: The case for the business generalist

Expertise and algorithms are overrated. Try using your brain, says this Harvard academic.