Monday. September 28, 2015.
During a panel discussion Monday’s session of the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York City, Erica Kochi, Senior Advisor on Innovation to the Executive Director, UNICEF and Co-founder and Co-lead of UNICEF Innovation, listens as John McFarlane, executive chairman of Barclays, makes a point. McFarlane is probably talking about Barclays philanthropic investments, but he could be explaining the proper arrangement of the furniture in a bank’s offices according to the principles of feng shui of which he is a devotee. (Photo by Cibele Vieira/Clinton Global Initiative.)
Streaming on the two classroom movie screen-sized television monitors on the front wall as I arrived in the CGI press room far below decks in the Sheraton Towers, was a panel discussion taking place somewhere far above me in the hotel. On screen as I unpacked my briefcase and set up a workspace for myself at one of the long tables serving as shared desks for us media types a square-headed, white-haired somewhat belligerent looking fellow in his sixties was talking in what I took as a brogue but was likely more a burr but could have been a mixture of both, his having been, as I Googled up a bit later, born and raised in Scotland but employed for a good time in Ireland. He looked like what he was, a bank executive with bad money on his mind---though people often look like what you know them to be, don’t they? If I’d found out later, he was a Catholic bishop who’d just been told parish priests in his diocese were blowing the Bingo money at the racetrack, that’s what he’d have looked like, exactly. What caught my attention though, was that this guy who looked like a banker seemed to be speaking with less than affection for banks.
In fact, it sounded like he was apologizing for their existence.
Everywhere he’s been, the people there have hated the banks, he was saying. In Hong Kong, they hated the banks. In Australia, they hated the banks. Now he’s back in he UK and people there hate the banks. His tone suggested he couldn’t blame them.
“I’ve never got to a place where the banks are loved.”
I couldn’t get my notebook out fast enough to scribble down what he said as he said it---some journalist wannabe I am.---so I don’t have it word for word, but the gist was that he thinks the Great Recession, at least as it was brought on in Europe, was the banks’ fault.
Too much incentivized risk-taking with no consequences for the risk-takers. Players too focused on short-term profits.
Anyway...he called the Recession itself or the behavior that caused it a “North Atlantic” disease---and he might have said Northern European. Like I said I was digging for my notebook and didn’t get his words down exactly before the discussion move on to something else, which it quickly did---that infected the whole world.
He was almost audibly sighing as he wrapped, regretting that his job in life seemed to be being the guy who comes in and cleans up the messes made by banks.
“I’d really like to build something,” he said wishfully.
That was refreshing, I thought, a banker mad at the banks. Who is this guy?
This guy turned out to be this guy, John McFarlane, the new executive chairman of Barclays. Barclays is described in a news story as “one of Britain’s biggest banks.” That’s an understatement, I think. Isn’t it one of the world’s biggest banks? Maybe the reporter was infected with the old colonialist habit of thinking the Great Britain is the world, the sun never setting et cetera. The empire’s financial now.
Always was, I suppose.
McFarlane’s became chairman back in the summer. Officially, he’s acting as chairman, only there until Barclays finds a permanent replacement for the previous chairman. McFarlane came out of retirement to take the job and I guess he plans to go back into retirement when his work cleaning up the mess at Barclays is done.
Cleaning up the mess, as it turns out, means cleaning house.
McFarlane’s nickname is Mack the Knife.
His specialty has been firing people.
The headline on a story in the Guardian about his arrival at Barcalys has him bringing “his chainsaw” with him.
First thing he did when he was brought in was fire the guy he was there to replace.
This panel discussion is billed on the CGI agenda as Making the Economy Work for People. I guess a good way to get started on that is to make it not work anymore for bankers who made it work against people.
The pesky question here, though, is who is meant by “people”?
As we all know too well, from the corporatist point of view, the only people who count as people are shareholders.
Everybody else, employees and customers included, are either assets or costs.
And the thing is, Barclays’ previous chairman, the one McFarlane fired, Antony Jenkins, had himself been brought in to clean up a mess. Barclays was reeling from a scandal. Jenkins blamed it on a twisted corporate culture that put short-term profit ahead of everything and he saw it as his mission to reform that culture:
Barclays Plc's reputation was hammered after it was fined 290 million pounds ($464 million) in June  for rigging Libor interest rates, which unearthed long-standing concerns by Britain's financial regulator about its culture.
It and other UK banks were also tarnished by scandals involving the mis-selling of financial products.
Jenkins, who took over after Bob Diamond stepped down in the wake of the Libor scandal, said he was putting five values at the heart of his plan: respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.
He will unveil his strategic plans on February 12 - which he said would "excite" staff on what the future holds - but he added that setting new standards was equally important to the bank's long-term success.
"The behavior which made those headlines in 2012 took place in the past. But it helped underline how banking as a whole had lost its way, and had lost touch with the values on which reputation and trust were built," he said in the memo.
"Over a period of almost 20 years, banking became too aggressive, too focused on the short-term, too disconnected from the needs of our customers and clients, and wider society. We were not immune at Barclays from these mistakes."
He said bankers pursued short-term profits at the expense of the values and reputation of the organization, and in the coming weeks more than 1,000 staff would be trained to spread the new values and embed them throughout the bank.
That’s from a Reuters story with the headline:
Barclays boss tells staff: adopt new values or leave
But it doesn’t appear that Jenkins lost his job because he failed to get employees to adopt new values. It appears it was because he didn’t tell enough of them to leave, whatever their old or new values were. In other words, he didn’t fire enough people fast enough.
He also didn’t cut costs to the degree the Barclays powers-that-be wanted them cut or do what they felt he should have done to increase stock prices as much as they thought they could have and should have increased.
Besides to fire people, McFarlane was brought in to cut costs in other ways too by closing branches and making the company “more efficient”. In corporatespeak, efficiency generally means laying people off in droves and making those lucky enough to keep their jobs work harder for less money and offering customers poorer service and shoddier products while making more money off them.
None of that was discussed during the remainder of the session. I’m not sure if any of it came up before I arrived, although it might have---before they finished up, the panelists shared there was some concern about how companies could continue their philanthropic commitments during hard times requiring budget cuts.
What I’m pretty sure didn’t come up was McFarlane’s other reputation.
He’s known---and not necessarily with affection or amusement---for his devotion to the principles of feng shui.
When he comes into a place to clean house, he also likes to redecorate and rearrange the furniture.
The influence of feng shui in Mr McFarlane's decision-making is well-known, with one disgruntled former executive at ANZ in Australia remarking on his enthusiasm for it.
"He loved that sort of stuff. I guess I am a different person. It worked for him but it wasn't for me," Steve Targett told The Australian newspaper in 2009.
"I didn't need to see the feng shui consultant come around and put little elephants in the corner of my office and tell me to give money to 10 beggars in 10 days and the like, otherwise I would have bad luck. I'm not that sort of person."
One of the first moves McFarlane made when he took over at Barclays, after firing Jenkins, was to order a new fleet of company cars:
Sky News understands that John McFarlane, who took the helm in April, has ditched Barclays' fleet of black executive cars and ordered a set of silver limousines in their place in order to indulge his predilection for the ancient Chinese system of feng shui.
Mr McFarlane is said to have requested that the bank change the colour of the cars it reserves for top executives because of his belief that silver or grey vehicles bring greater harmony to their users.