TV grilling helped put Hester's house in order

Focus: The chief executive of RBS was publicly hauled over the coals after the global crisis, but he insists the company is once again fit for purpose.

Stephen Hester says Royal Bank of Scotland has been at the forefront of adopting a safer business model. Pawel Dwulit / The National
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Stephen Hester, the head of Royal Bank of Scotland, shot to prominence when he was among a small number of bankers paraded before a televised British parliamentary select committee and questioned about the causes of the collapse of the financial system.

Was it down to overpaid bankers taking too much risk and too-large bonuses? Did they feel no sense of shame? Were they prepared to apologise to the nation? Any chance of some of the money back?

Holed up at the Emirates Palace hotel and ushering us into a gold-panelled reception room, Mr Hester seems to have got over any uncomfortable feelings he might have had about the perks, although he did once admit his parents probably think he is paid too much. Even though the bank is 80 per cent owned by the British taxpayer, he received a cool £7 million (Dh42.1m) pay packet last year. Despite the riches, when we meet him he is struggling with his iPad. Clearly, wealth is not everything, and on some levels at least, the rich aren't different from the rest of us at all.

He was perhaps unfairly dragged into the banking hall of shame. Mr Hester became the group chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) only in November 2008, leaving a relatively anonymous position as the chief executive of British Land. Prior to that he was the chief operating officer of Abbey National, had held a variety of positions with Credit Suisse First Boston, including chief financial officer, the head of fixed income and the co-head of European investment banking.

He went to a state school in Yorkshire but is softly spoken with no trace of an accent (perhaps he lost it at Oxford University), is ruddy-cheeked and chooses his words carefully, as though one day they might come back to bite him.

He admits to few pleasures outside the office: being with his family; and gardening on his 350-acre estate in Oxfordshire. He is also a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. But rather than asking about the Chelsea Flower Show, or what the dry weather has done to his herbaceous border, we thought we should drag up the past.

On television at the parliamentary select committee you looked rather uncomfortable trying to explain the huge losses at RBS. How was that experience?

Of course any [chief executive] job has a lot to do with communications and I understand why we should do so. The particular circumstances of the global financial crisis and RBS's circumstances, [it] was badly wounded by that crisis, gives a high level of public interest. I have to accept that and be the face of RBS as we recover from that crisis.

Was it a self-inflicted wound?

Clearly the financial crisis has many roots. Most of them were in the macroeconomic management of deficits by countries around the world, but the financial industry was the key transmission mechanism, and the financial industry made its share of mistakes, and RBS was prominent in the group of banks most exposed to the crisis. In that sense, the people running RBS needed to take responsibility and indeed have left the bank.

Do you think bankers now understand risk better?

We need to be cautious because risk keeps coming back in different forms at different moments. We can never be complacent. But I think the lessons around the financial crisis have been well learnt by governments and by market participants and banks, and there have been huge amounts of change. I think RBS has been at the forefront of adopting a safer business model.

Has the bonus issue gone away? Are bankers overpaid?

We have parts of our business that are global and others that are domestic. Investment banking, which tends to be the highest-paid area, crosses tens if not hundreds of countries around the world. The number of countries where pay levels are controversial are a handful, maybe less. That doesn't mean it's right or wrong, but in a global industry, global forces shape the way you have to operate. Pay should be more closely aligned with results, but that will never remove the issue of pay from public debate, but we need to ground it in economic reality as much as possible.

Tell us about your business in the Gulf?

It is based off cross-border flows. The biggest participant is our investment banking arm, which all around the world is intermediating, financing and including the Middle East, risk management products and so on. We have one of the world's largest cash management engines, which is operating globally and complementing that through Coutts, our wealth manager. We're a good home for spare investment money. Those are the three businesses that operate throughout the world and in this region. We have about 200 people in Dubai, but also in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and service a number of countries more broadly from there.

What next for RBS?

I would be disappointed if the process of reprivatisation did not start sometime in 2012. I would be happy if they started selling shares today, but because of regulatory change, I think the probability is 2012. But we are ready to stand on our two feet - here's how we operate and here is something for investors. RBS can be a good investment.

What do you do when not being pilloried by politicians?

I'm just a normal guy. I relax in normal ways. This weekend I was playing tennis, I love horticulture and trees, go skiing in the right season. I love just being with my family, just hanging out. I'm just a normal kind of guy.