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  • Writer's picturePeter Smith

THURSDAY 10th FEBRUARY 2000 (part 1); The End?

I'm staying in Rugby overnight after driving down from Cheadle through the horrendous Birmingham motorway traffic, with a view to popping in on our major print supplier this morning before driving back into London. I have a particularly sleepless night, waking convinced it is time to get up, then discovering it is only 4 a.m. I drop back into a fitful doze, punctuated by peculiar dreams, and finally abandon efforts to sleep further at six. I put the television on, and right at the start of the BBC1 news, the gorgeous Tania Becket, with her lip gloss and flashing eyes (how does she look so good at that time of the day?) announces that the battle for NatWest isover; Royal Bank of Scotland have won.

I shower and dress rapidly, and find a Times in the lobby, which confirms that over the last 24 hours more of the major institutions have swung behind RBS. Although they have not said anything publicly, it is believed that Prudential, our biggest shareholder, has come down in favour of RBS, despite the fact that BoS have agreed to sell the NatWest life assurance business to the Pru if they won. However, there is still extreme volatility in the share prices; NatWest was down yesterday, and RBS shares fell 15% as their victory became more certain. But it does look like it is all over bar the formalities. By 6.30a.m. I am on the road back to London - I think I should be in the office today. My print supplier will have to wait for the pleasure of my visit.

There are various ways I could get into the office, but the quickest seems to be driving to Hemel Hempstead and picking up the train into Marylebone. As I drive over the Chilterns, dawn breaks slowly with heavy, grey skies, torrential showers, and gale force gusts. The hills are bare and gloomy. This all feels portentous, and my emotions are mixed but much more powerful at this time than I expected. I am surprised at the lump in my throat. I haven't been at NatWest long enough to have huge loyalty, but there is something sad about such an institution disappearing. Having said that, NW itself has only been NatWest for 30 -odd years; it is in itself the consolidation over many, many years of hundreds of smaller entities. This is I suppose just one more stop on that journey.

The other factor that is getting to me is just the realisation that this is not a game, and now real jobs and people are going to be affected. The whole bid process has gone on for so long that at times it has felt more like an intellectual exercise or management simulation than real life.

Having said that, it will be good to know at last what is going to happen. The uncertainty over the last 5 months has become very wearing on everybody. RBS is an interesting and apparently successful business with many aspects that could fit well with NatWest. And at least it is not Bank of Scotland who have won. The hostility generated through the bid process would have made it very difficult for integration with them to have worked smoothly.

I'm in the office by 9a.m. There is a rather strange "message to customers" on the Intranet that suggests how staff should respond to questions from customers in branches. "Does this mean I have to have my pension in Scottish florins", that sort of thing. Well, slightly more sensible but not exactly informative. I read it as admitting defeat, but it is not clear and does not mention the take-over explicitly at all. Later on in the morning word gets out of an internal BoS message to staff that accepts defeat, saying it was close but acknowledging RBS have won. I speak to Jane on the phone to get the latest from Teletext. At one stage, she says hang on, she can hear then saying "Westminster" on the news. She is back quickly - it is Westminster Hospital running out of beds!

I give out bonus letters to my staff. At least we got that sorted and out of the way in time. Finally, as I expected, I get the summons to a Leadership Team meeting in the Lothbury canteen at 5'o'clock. As I haven't had my personal bonus letter yet, I get there early and drop in on Richard Delbridge, who luckily is there. "You better open it now in case you're not happy!"

But I am happy - it is more than last year, which I am very pleased about as the overall amount available is down. I thank him and ask him if he thinks he'll stay after the takeover. RBS want him, he says, which stacks up with some press comment and hints from RBS, but he's not sure. He is far from clear what exactly the role would be, and anyway, he has real doubts about whether RBS can now deliver what they have promised to the City in terms of cost and headcount reductions. But he reckons purchasing should be OK; they will have to rely on us to deliver a major chunk of the savings they need.

I tell him he should take a holiday and that I thought he looked exhausted the other week - although actually he looks better today. He hasn't had a holiday for almost a year. The problem is, he is a real workaholic and I think in a strange way relishes the fact that he hasn't had a break. I think he would find it very hard to give up work entirely- on the other hand, given everything he has been through at Midland, HSBC, and NatWest, I cannot see how he could summon up the motivation and energy to take on another hellishly difficult task now. And having spent three years here getting the finance function working more or less the way he wants it, I am sure he would not accept a role if he felt the RBS vision of Finance did not meet his own.

Richard and I wander up to the canteen, which is gradually filling up. Our lovely Comms Head arrives in the brightest lime-green jacket and jumper I have ever seen. "Thought we needed a bit of cheerfulness," she says, still smiling. Then she rushes off because the Chairman has just decided wine should be served after this get together and they can't find the keys to the cupboards. By five the place is packed. Sir David, Ron and Gordon Pell sit together- there is no stage, just three chairs and a microphone in front of a window, and the rest of us sitting at the small round canteen tables. If this is the death ofNatWest, it is an unprepossessing place for it to happen; we are going out with a whimper, not a bang.

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