Barclays shake-up leaves Frits in bits

November 3, 2009

So much for Barclays’ ambitions to be a magnet for banking talent. When the British bank hired Frits Seegers, the Dutchman arrived with a big reputation and an even larger price tag — the cost of buying him out of his previous job at Citigroup. Three years on, he’s on his way, the main casualty of a management shake-up that leaves his main rival, Barclays president Bob Diamond, looking stronger than ever.

As ever, the reorganisation is not entirely without strategic merit. Barclays is shifting responsibility for the corporate bank from the retail side of the business to its Barclays Capital investment banking arm. The logic is that even small companies want to hedge foreign exchange and commodity risks — products they are more likely to find in Barclays Capital. Besides, most rival banks have combined corporate and investment banking. There is something in this. Though it is hard to see Barclays’ investment bankers wasting much time on small British businesses with a few million pounds in turnover.

The other argument for the move is that Barclays wants to give some of the thrusting managers coming through the organisation a place at the top table. So Barclays’ executive committee, which previously had just four members, will now need to find another eight chairs for its meetings. This gives more executives direct access to the board, and provides plenty of choice when drawing up a shortlist of potential candidates to replace chief executive John Varley.

It is also true that Seegers’ tenure was mixed. Several of Barclays’ retail businesses, such as its Barclaycard credit card division, had already installed strong management teams before he arrived. His main achievement has been to expand Barclays in far-flung countries like Indonesia and Pakistan. Whether this flag-planting approach survives his departure remains to be seen.

The shake-up also speaks volumes about where Barclays sees its future growth. Diamond’s empire used to include the Barclays Global Investors fund management arm until it was sold earlier this year to raise capital. But even after the successful acquisition of Lehman Brothers’ U.S. operations, Varley still wants the investment bank to account for no more than a third of the bank’s income. The latest reshuffle gives Diamond a bigger share of Barclays’ remaining businesses. It also removes one of his few rivals for the top job.

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There is nothing worse than politics within politics, as banking politics:- banks are the political axis of country politics.

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