RBS’s CEO succession gains urgency post Panditgate

October 19, 2012

By George Hay

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Royal Bank of Scotland’s succession planning is attaining greater urgency. After recent milestones, Chief Executive Stephen Hester is on track to achieve his five-year turnaround plan by its 2013 deadline. Meanwhile, Vikram Pandit’s unceremonious ouster from Citigroup on Oct. 16 shows the wisdom of quitting while ahead. RBS’s board should put two and two together and prepare for life after Hester.

There are obvious similarities between Hester and Pandit. Both are former investment bankers who have spent the years since the 2008 crisis grappling to repair outsized, bailed-out universal banks. Both have got burned on remuneration. Citi shareholders rejected Pandit’s pay package. Public pressure made Hester give up his bonuses for 2009, 2011 and the current year, and a long-term incentive awarded in 2009 paid out nothing. But Hester still has a chance to leave unequivocally on his own terms.

Hester’s main job, to shrink RBS’s towering 258 billion pound pile of non-core assets, is nearly done. Although plans to sell 316 branches to Santander recently foundered, other disposals ordered by the European Commission as penance for state aid, like the listing of RBS’s retail insurance arm, have gone well. And RBS has just exited a costly UK state bad-asset insurance scheme.

RBS’s board may not see the rush. If Hester’s goal is to stay until the government starts selling down its 82 percent RBS stake, there is indeed some breathing space. The process may not start until March 2014, according to a person familiar with the situation.

But if Hester decides his job is merely to complete RBS’s restructuring, he could leave in the next year. It’s hard to see much upside hanging around for a politically-driven share sale likely to be below the government’s in-price, with the attendant public outcry.

An early Hester exit might also be better for RBS, if well-managed. New investors would have confidence the new CEO was in for the long haul.

Pandit’s recent mis-steps, such as a disappointing Smith Barney sale, culminated in him leaving under a cloud. RBS and Hester should manage matters so he doesn’t do likewise.

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