Gary Hoffman took over as chief executive of Northern Rock days before the collapse of Lehman Brothers shook the banking world to its core.
LIKE virtually all of his colleagues at Northern Rock House, Gary Hoffman vividly recalls the events of September 14, 2007. Unlike most of them, however, he wasn’t working for Northern Rock on that Friday morning when queues of anxious depositors formed outside the bank’s branches.
Instead, he was taking part in a "return to the shop floor" programme for Barclays executives and had been dispatched to the Moorgate branch in London, where a crowd had gathered at a nearby Northern Rock branch.
"There was a huge queue down the road and I went and stood in the queue rather than go to my role for the day as a cashier at Barclays," Hoffman recalls.
"It was a long queue but what the people were saying was: ‘We like the people inside Northern Rock, we don’t want to take our money out, but we’ve heard Robert Peston on the radio, we’ve heard Sky News, we’ve read it in the paper, it is our life savings, we’ve got no choice, we can’t risk it. But one day I would like to put my money back here if I can.’"
Hoffman was as struck that day by the loyalty of the customers as he was by the cool-headed staff who were doing a "fantastic job" calming worried customers down.
For a banker who had spent much of his career extolling the virtues of great customer service, here was a brilliant example of it – just as the bank’s staff faced their darkest hour.
Little did Hoffman know that, just over 12 months later, he would be in charge of the Rock, which had become the first victim of a run on a British bank for a century.
Hoffman, a private man who rarely does Press interviews, is most at ease when talking about his "colleagues". It’s a term which can conjure up images of smiling supermarket workers complete with "happy to help" badges, but Hoffman is not spouting empty rhetoric.
Team spirit is not just an important ingredient in the Northern Rock story of the last 18 months – as far as he’s concerned it’s been its lifeblood.
"I think one of the reasons why Northern Rock has survived and the brand has proved resilient is because the people are very resilient," he says, a theme he echoes throughout our meeting.
"Whatever position I am in, I’ve always talked to customers most days, picked up complaints most days and talked to colleagues every day. The first session I had this morning was to talk to a group of colleagues that we have working on problems we have got with car parking."
Whilst he confesses the chief executive should have bigger issues on his plate than why his staff struggle to find somewhere to park, he insists he needs to "understand how colleagues are feeling". And breaking down barriers between the boardroom and the rest of the workforce in the sprawling Gosforth offices is something he’s been keen to achieve from day one.
"The first thing I saw when I arrived here was a sign saying ‘do not walk across the executive car park’," he recalls. "I saw that as symbolic of hierarchy and a lack of connection between leaders and the people that they are leading."
In contrast, today the most noticeable signs scattered about the Rock HQ are posters calling on employees to nominate a colleague – or "Rock Star" – for a company award.
It is the kind of initiative you might expect from someone who was the first person in Barclays to have "sales" in his title as part of an experiment.
It proved successful and after spells running the bank’s systems, he established Barclays phone banking (including setting up a call centre in Sunderland), built internet banking, then added branches, technology and marketing to his ever-widening remit before becoming chief executive of the firm’s retail banking business.
He went on to head up Barclaycard, where he signed the deal to become sponsor of the FA Premier League. For the huge football fan – he is vice-chairman of hometown club Coventry City – it was to prove a bittersweet moment.
"I signed the deal to sponsor the Premier League the weekend that Coventry were relegated from it," he recalls.
"It broke my heart putting pen to paper on the deal knowing that Coventry would not be in the Premier League and that they might never return.
"The day they were relegated, which was Aston Villa away to make it worse, I took my six-week-old because I had only ever seen Coventry play outside the top flight once, which was in 1966 when they were promoted. I thought that he might only ever see Coventry in the Premier League once."
It might prove to be true. Nine years on, and Coventry have yet to win promotion back to the top flight, not that a lack of success has diminished Hoffman’s willingness to travel the country watching his beloved team.
Hoffman is in no doubt that football sponsorship can make good commercial sense, as he demonstrated last month when he renewed the Rock’s shirt sponsorship deal with Newcastle United. The deal, which could be worth up to £10m, was predictably controversial, but Hoffman is adamant it was the right thing to do.
"I think done well (sponsorship) is an important part of the marketing mix. But in order to do it well you have to choose something that aligns with what your business wants to achieve and you have to put your name to it.
"You need either naming rights or your name closely associated with it. So Barclays Premier League works, Northern Rock on Newcastle works, but who sponsors the Olympics? People spend tens of millions sponsoring the Olympics, but no one knows who it is. So what’s the point?"
He denies that renewing the Newcastle United sponsorship was a difficult decision – in spite of the criticism he knew would be coming his way from some quarters.
"The team were clear that Northern Rock had a great heritage within the community and a great alignment with the football club and the sponsorship has served it well," he says.
"I was clear that it would do that in the future too and believed we could make more of the links between Newcastle United and Northern Rock.
"I always knew that there would be some people who would disagree with it but I only looked at what was the right thing to do commercially for Northern Rock."
The sponsorship is just a small part of the rebuilding effort that has gone into re-establishing the Rock brand under Hoffman’s leadership.
However, when he took over the hot-seat from current chairman Ron Sandler, the bank’s Government owners had very different plans for the troubled institution – including reducing the mortgage book and winding the business down.
Whilst reluctant to claim all of the credit, surely one of Hoffman’s greatest achievements was successfully challenging this business plan.
And, although he could not have realised it at the time, his cause was helped by the spectacular fashion in which the rest of the banking sector came tumbling down behind the Rock. Almost overnight, bank lending stopped and the Government was forced to reassess the role its only fully nationalised institution should play.
"My first official date (in the job) was October 1, 2008 and the world fell apart on the 8th with Lehman Brothers, so it was an intense first few weeks," says Hoffman. "We put in place and recommended to the Government a new strategy that involved splitting the company in two."
There were, he says, three objectives of this exercise: firstly, to minimise the amount of investment the taxpayer would have to put in to the bank – and he reckons some £4bn of taxpayer investment in capital has been saved; secondly, to grow the bank back into a successful business, "and I’m glad we’re back in new lending because ultimately you can’t shrink to success"; and, thirdly, to prepare Northern Rock for a return to private ownership, something which is now clearly on the horizon, although no timeframe has yet been set.
It took several months to get the Government to agree to the new strategy, which ultimately resulted in the division of the business – into Northern Rock Plc and Northern Rock Asset management Company – at the start of this year.
Hoffman is in no doubt that it was the right thing to do.
"I think the split into two companies has ensured a future whereas there might not have been one without it," he says. "I think we have created something that will be attractive to private investors in due course."
With the split achieved and the Government guarantee for depositors expected to be lifted soon, it seems that Hoffman’s job at Northern Rock could be coming to an end. But, if he has any plans to look for the exit door, he is not revealing them just yet.
"I am here as long as it takes to stabilise Northern Rock, transform Northern Rock and get it moving forward and that could be five years or five minutes is the way I’ve always looked at it," he says. "But I’m not looking for the next job because I’ve had a more successful career than I ever expected to."
And turning around the Rock will rank right up there. "Do I think that stabilising, transforming, getting Northern Rock facing forward and rehabilitated would be a very big achievement for the team? Yes I do. And I will stay with it as long as people want me and as long as it takes."
He admits the pace of progress has been faster than he dared to hope.
"If I look back 12 months and ask did I expect that we would make this much progress in 12 months, of course, I was hoping that we would, but did I think that we would be as far forward as we are? I think that we certainly feel we have come a very long way in a short time."
It has certainly not been an easy ride and Hoffman admits there have been times when he feared the worst.
"I’ve always thought that we had the people, the attitude and the vision to pull through, but were there times in the depths of the banking crisis that it wasn’t clear whether lots of banks would survive including Northern Rock? Absolutely. There were times during my time here that I thought Northern Rock might not survive."
Hoffman admits that Northern Rock will always be "an icon of the credit crunch", having played such a high-profile role at the start of the crisis. But he is also confident the story can have a happy ending.
"I hope it will be the first chapter, and one of the last chapters," he says.
"It can also be a case study of how, out of adversity, a team of colleagues that are very committed to a cause and resilient and passionate for doing the right thing for customers and linked into the local community can succeed when lots of people thought they wouldn’t."
Hoffman on leaving Barclays:
"It was a wrench to leave after 27 years. I didn’t want to leave. I was enjoying it. I had done most of the big jobs there and when someone first came to me and said would you like to come and run Northern Rock, I said: ‘Don’t be silly, why would I want to do that when I have a great job here in Barclays?’"
Hoffman on the collapse of Northern Rock:
"No one predicted what happened. I think there is a feature in the industry that those small, very successful building societies that tried to become big, successful banks were always going to find their model and capability challenged when the going got tough. And I would say that Northern Rock alongside Halifax and others were part of that."
Hoffman on the last recession:
"The thing I learnt most was that relationships are the most important thing and that what you do during the difficult times with customers to see them through will live with them forever and live with the banks forever.
"If banks take the umbrella away when it rains, whereas they’re happy to give you the umbrella when the sun is shining, customers never forget it."
Hoffman on modern banking:
"I think the ‘Mr Mannering’ bank never existed. People often say to me that we need to go back to the days when the bank manager knew everyone – but they didn’t really, they just knew the people at the golf club."
Hoffman on banks and sponsorship:
"What you tend to find a lot is the chief executive likes something – be it football, golf or cricket – so you sponsor it. That is completely inappropriate and you have seen that happening at other banks."
Hoffman on straight talking:
"I always remember the phrase, ‘It’s important to read the writing on the wall before your back is against it’ and I think we were very straight with the problems that we had."
Hoffman on dealing with the Government:
"They are the single shareholder whereas I’m used to interaction with many shareholders. The dialogue is inevitably more regular but I propose a strategy through the board of Northern Rock, they agree it and let me get on with it. They don’t interfere."