Opportunity out of adversity: from mortar-strewn Beirut to steering a banking behemoth in London
In our series of inspiring life stories across continents, we hear how Lebanese-born HSBC boss Georges Elhedery learnt his stock-in-trade attribute as a boy in a land torn by war
On many a morning before work, a figure can be spotted moving speedily under its own steam past some of Britain’s most iconic sights as he runs from his home in central London to one of the main financial districts in the world.
Along the way, Georges Elhedery takes in the edge of Hyde Park, Wellington Arch, Buckingham Palace, the Embankment, the Thames and the Tower of London, cutting through Docklands, until he arrives at a pair of giant bronze lions in Canary Wharf.
The statues, distinctive landmarks in their own right, guard the entrance to a skyscraper designed by Sir Norman Foster that is the global headquarters of HSBC.
For Mr Elhedery, the eight-mile commute ticks several boxes - it’s his all-important daily exercise, is an appealing alternative to tangling with the capital’s road snarls or public transport, and alleviates the stresses of his job as Co-CEO of Global Banking & Markets at a multinational behemoth.
“During the week, I have a regular ritual: every, every, morning before I start work, I exercise,” Mr Elhedery tells The National. “I might run to work, do a gym workout, do some kickboxing. I always keep myself fit and free my mind for at least that hour, without any other consideration in life before I start my day.”
Sport, Mr Elhedery believes, helps build an attribute about which he talks a great deal: resilience. Physical activity is his biggest passion outside of work; he and his wife spend almost all their free time jogging, hiking, mountain biking, swimming or, in winter, snowboarding.
Judging by his career trajectory, the action-packed lifestyle, which includes completing four consecutive Dubai marathons, has more than justified his belief in the fortifying power of movement. When not cycling up hills or trekking down dale, Mr Elhedery oversees HSBC’s global banking and markets network that spans more than 55 countries and territories in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.
But it wasn’t always so. His urbane, optimistic exterior belies the fact that his schooling began in war-torn Lebanon. As he sits at his desk and looks out across the bustling but relatively calm city before him, the lessons from the streets of Beirut - full of uncertainty, adversity, ambiguity and a “clouded vision of the future” - are often at the forefront of his mind.
Mr Elhedery, now 46, has a deep awareness of and is thankful for the opportunities he has had in life; they took him from being a boy living in fear of mortar attacks to a young man offered a place to study at prestigious intellectual institutions in Paris and beyond.
In the family home in Beirut, where he grew up with his father, a retail banker, his mother, a teacher, and his artistic brother, there was much wise paternal counsel that has stuck with him through the years. “My Dad said that if I worked hard in my school and university years, all options would be available to me,” he says.
The advice - and the young Georges’ response to it - served him exceptionally well. At the age of 20, he went to the École Polytechnique in Paris for engineers, where he came to realise how well-equipped for life he was becoming. Augmenting the resourcefulness learnt in Lebanon, he was now starting to acquire a world-class academic education.
After studying engineering, he had every intention of embarking on a career on the frontline of technological innovations in Germany. But, in spite of studying German for 12 years, he was unsuccessful in the many interviews he went for.
In an environment like this, you learn how to become more agile
“Now I can blame my German for not being up to scratch,” he says wryly, “as well as maybe other reasons as to why I didn’t succeed. But it was there that I got a traineeship in Germany in finance and got on the trading floor straight away, and I thought: ‘This is how I want to continue my career.’ That was the end of my engineering years. It is what made me go into economics and statistics and took me into finance. So it was very coincidental.”
The rest is history. And so began a life-long love for banking, and the sector returned the sentiment with a string of promotions. Mr Elhedery looks back a little bemused that he ended up as a banker given that it was his father’s profession. He thinks that his father, too, was surprised at the change in direction.
“He really saw me going into an engineering career and was very firmly wanting me to go in that direction,” he said. “But, at the same time, he felt that if this is where my heart and mind are taking me then I should follow them.”
HSBC has been the third banking employer in Mr Elhedery’s illustrious career. He has worked around the world steering the vision of the financial giant, but retains a deep affection for the Middle East, in particular.
He finds it pleasant to be talking about the region and is disappointed at not being able to go back for a visit as planned in March, but he intends to return soon, possibly for the Dubai Expo 2020, now scheduled for the end of 2021.
It was during his time in Dubai that Mr Elhedery, then aged 37, was named on the Financial News “40 Under 40 Rising Stars” list. He is proud to have made the pick as one of the bright young things in the industry, not least for, as the newspaper put it so presciently, his potential to reach a position of great influence.
“When I look at the people on the list, many have had fantastic careers since,” he says. “Being a part of this club is very rewarding. I have to recognise HSBC, though, as they put me forward for the list. To me, it meant that not only did they value me, but they also cared about my career.”
After almost a decade in Dubai, Mr Elhedery relocated to Britain to become Head of Global Markets; a year later, he was promoted to Co-CEO of Global Banking & Markets just weeks before the nation was plunged into a national coronavirus lockdown. He maintains, though, that the unprecedented constraints and obstacles posed by Covid-19 present opportunities for growth.
“In an environment like this, you learn how to become more agile, how to adapt, how to adjust and how to find your way,” Mr Elhedery says. “I think as a starting position one should always look at: ‘How can I learn from what is happening?’”
This is not to underestimate the immense challenges involved in helping to guide HSBC’s business clients through a future full of unknowns. From a global point of view, Mr Elhedery says it is impossible to predict the financial recovery from the pandemic and the kinds of downturns that economies will face.
Throughout the coronavirus rollercoaster, the expectation has been one of immense disruption but he reports the amazement of many clients who did not seem to notice the move from staff working normally in the office to the vast majority working from home. Everything, he says, continued seamlessly, from client engagement to trade execution and settlement in top primary markets.
“I couldn’t be more thankful for everything the team has done, the level of motivation, the level of engagement and the level of focus to deliver the task has been outstanding,” Mr Elhedery says.
“My message to my team has been: ‘In these moments, your actions will be the ones that will define you - be it with your colleagues and management, but, more importantly, with your clients. If you stand by your client in a moment of adversity like this one, the client is likely to be with us for the next 10 years because they will know that we were here for them when they needed us the most.
“‘You have to rise to this challenge, you cannot stand still, you have to be on the front foot and take your destiny in your hand and deal with things…,’” he says, with a slight pause and a self-deprecating smile, “and thank God it worked.”
Updated: January 26, 2021 03:33 PM