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  • Writer's picturePeter Smith

SATURDAY 25th SEPTEMBER 1999: The Lost Weekend (Day One)

This proves to be without a doubt one of the strangest weekends of my life. The word that keeps re-occurring, used by a number of us over the two days, is "surreal". I arrive at Lothbury at around ten on Saturday morning and go to the fourth floor (where the top executives have their humble 600 sq.ft. offices), as Bernard had suggested, and hang around with a little group, most of whom I have never seen before in my life.

Some are NatWest people, including a couple of senior guys and some bright young things from strategy or consulting who are vaguely familiar. There are also a couple of youngsters who have the look of consultants or advisers. By twenty past ten we are worried by the lack of any obvious gathering, and someone starts a rumour that something is going on in the Boardroom. We troop down to the 2nd floor, to find around 15 people there with the meeting already in session. This is not the most impressive start to the day and doesn’t reflect well on NatWest’s organisational skills.

It rapidly becomes clear that this is going to be an odd day. Bernard is here - the only board member present - but isn't chairing the meeting. Mark Fisher is. He is the large, loud, intelligent Head of Operations for the Retail Bank. That is an important position, probably slightly outranking me in the hierarchy, but he is not at the very top management level. However, he is held in high esteem - some would even say fear, but I don’t understand why he is chairing this meeting. Is this a palace coup with the young Turks overthrowing the tired old guard? Mark is talked about as "the next Group Chief Executive but one" and this seems to have stuck; although it is most unclear who said this. He is young, late 30's I guess, and has a style that could be described as dynamic, pugnacious, or possibly less kindly as hectoring. He is in full flow this morning, looking very comfortable in charge, while Bernard sits there saying nothing.

The day is very much like the management training exercises I did at Mars and as part of my DMS, which was a poor man's business qualification back in the early 80's, before every local playgroup offered its own MBA. (I did my Diploma in Management Studies at Slough Tech, which mysteriously over the years has blossomed into the University of West London.)

Once Mark has finished outlining what we are going to do today, we split up into four groups of 6 - 8 people, and go off to look at current year costs, ideas for cost cutting in 2000, IT strategy and planning, and the future shape of the organisation. After an hour or two, we come back into the boardroom, present our ideas to the whole group, have a bit of discussion, and break again into groups to continue working on our "assignments". It is very strange and somewhat unreal, particularly as most of the real decision makers are not here. I can't see how this group can decide on the whole future strategy for NatWest!

The composition of the attendees is a particular mystery. There is not a single Managing Director of any of the 13 NW businesses present today. There is a fair sprinkling of senior operations, marketing or finance people from the businesses, some senior functional people like me, Mike Newens, the Group Property Director, and Chris Bottomley (the no.2 in Group Human Resources) and a number of bright young things. Were we carefully selected, or the poor sods who happened to answer the phone last night and were daft enough to agree to give up our valuable leisure time? Perhaps the common theme is that we don't think quickly enough to have invented a very important prior engagement for today. Having said that, I am glad to be here for the experience and just to see what is happening. But as the weekend wears on, I tend increasingly to the random selection theory.

Everybody is I think trying to make some contribution, but there are a number of different approaches being taken around the room. People broadly seem to fall into four categories.

Gangbusters - seem to love every minute and get more excited as the ideas get crazier and less feasible. (By Sunday lunchtime we are running NW with 200 people, an IBM 390 and a Dyson vacuum cleaner. Everything else is outsourced and we make £5 Billion a year.) These individuals appear to take an unhealthy delight in the number of redundancies being put forward, and entire departments or even businesses are wiped out or merged at the stroke of a marker pen on a flip chart. Some of my colleagues surprise and disappoint me by falling into this category. Others, as I would have expected, take the opportunity to demonstrate their machismo management philosophies.

Piss artists- not that they aren't contributing, but as discussions get more surreal, some people basically crack up and start treating the whole thing as a huge joke. I think it is probably humour as a relief from the pressure and tension, and it is very welcome.

Chris Bottomley, who I had always considered to be a typically dry and boring HR man (and very senior VP) turns out to have a wickedly cynical sense of humour and brightens up my weekend significantly.

One of our senior communications people is hilarious and my favourite person of the weekend. She is a terribly, terribly nice and jolly pretty gal with a self-aware slightly camp, "Ab Fab" approach to life which disguises a very sharp brain. She works for Terence Collis, Director of Communications and stuff (very important, reports directly to Derek Wanless.) Terence is with Derek and advisers over at JP Morgan for the weekend, no doubt discussing strategy and ringing every other big bank in the world to see if they fancy a rescue mission. At one stage my new heroine phones Terence for an update.

"Terence! How are things there? Are you having a lovely day? We are! We’re doing terribly exciting things here. We've got Peter, and Chris, and lots of other super people. What? Oh, I'm wearing a blue sweater today. Oh, thank you" (Stage whisper to us - "Terence thinks blue is so much my colour"). "What are you doing? Oh, you 're sliding down the banisters at J. P. Morgan? That does sound like fun. And Derek as well? No, I see. Well do take care- yes, I'll call you just as soon as anything happens."

Doh???...... Some people clearly have no clue what they are doing here. Neither do I. They were probably babysitting for a NW manager on Friday night and took the call by mistake, next thing they know they are in some big building behind the Bank of England being asked damn fool questions, but the coffee and sandwiches are free, so what the hell... Their contribution is minimal but at least they are not dangerous.

Do your best -the somewhat serious, boring, but pragmatic people who just try and make some sensible contribution. I probably fall into this category, along with a few others who go up in my estimation over the weekend. People like Jim Mann, who can be pretty abrasive, but actually shows a lot of common sense and sensitivity when it comes to discussing job cuts and the like. Jeremy Charles, the Coutts Chief Operating Officer, is another real asset. We try and come up with some sensible ideas and plans without glorying too much in some of the more extreme slash'n burn proposals.

J is good to have around; one of her strengths is that she is very happy working at any level from handling junior staff to talking to the Chairman. She tends to swing between sensible input and hilarity, but by the end of Saturday she is decidedly underwhelmed by the whole experience. She decides it really might be better if someone bought us if this is the best we can do! She can't make Sunday; golf match, or cello rehearsals or some such excuse, but most of us volunteer. We are told Derek will join us on Sunday afternoon to see what we have come up with, which should be interesting.

* 2019 notes; Mark Fisher was one of the few NatWest execs who came out of the eventual takeover well, as we’ll see later. He has had a very successful career, ending up as group COO of Lloyds. He left in 2014, was briefly a non-exec at TSB but has disappeared from view somewhat…

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