Obituary: Sir Brian Pitman, the perfect chairman

The most memorable quality of legendary men, as some of us who were fortunate enough to know one would attest to, is just how accessible they really were despite their fame. Sir Brian Pitman, the legendary chairman and CEO of Llyods TSB in the UK, was one such man.

He was someone who knew The Asian Banker well, having travelled with us to our meetings in Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia and India since 2004. I remember the long breakfasts I had with him in Jakarta and Mumbai, and the gin-and-tonics in a number of relaxed settings I no longer remember. I dare say that it was he who got me into the habit of a gin-and-tonic for relaxation, because he always looked contented with one.

They were conversations during which time he made available to me discussions on any topic I wanted. On leadership, retail banking, the future of the financial services industry, the role of directors today or the times he spent just listening to my rantings on Singapore Airlines, where he was a director.

Forming my own composite view of him was important to me. Here was access to a man who had built one of the Britain’s largest and strongest institutions. Here was a man whose special place in the history of banking in the United Kingdom would stir people like me to ask, “was what he achieved repeatable in other markets,” particularly in Asia.

He became chief executive of Lloyds in 1983 at the lowest point in its history and by the time he left it as chairman, had turned it into one of the largest and most successful banks in the Western world. But the full story is that of a man who also very nearly brought it down, through lending to sovereign borrowers in Latin America in the 1970s. Despite his charming, gentlemanly nature, quite clearly he was entrepreneurial at heart, making spectacular mistakes, but bouncing back from them. Few would remember them today only because his subsequent spectacular successes surpassed them.

He was born in Cheltenham on December 13 1931, a date I recorded into my diary because like me he was a true Sagittarian. As the story goes, he was born of parents who had eloped. Brian Pitman was only nine weeks old when his father was killed in a car crash, leaving his mother Doris to bring him up on her own as her parents had disowned her. Growing up fatherless, his mother ingrained in him values for hard work, and in his own words the belief that “it’s not money that matters in life”. The essence of our conversations were never about power, status or money. He never name dropped, ever. it was always about getting things done.

He went to Cheltenham grammar school on scholarship, where he was a cricketer and played rugby. He also played trombone in a local jazz band, so that despite shortcomings he had a well rounded education that was reflected in his sense of well being. He never did university, despite potentially qualifying. He had wanted to go out and work for the sake of the family. He started as a clerk at the Cheltenham & Gloucester mortgage society and moved in 1952 to join the local branch of Lloyds Bank.

He had a very successful career at Lloyds, generating business for the bank during the banking crisis of 1973. He was made a general manager in 1975. For the most parts, he never questioned conventional wisdom when he was younger and neither did he in his old age.

As deputy chief executive of Lloyds’ international arm, he followed the rest of the industry in lending to Latin American governments and state enterprises in a big way. In Lloyds’ case this involved loans larger than the bank’s own net worth, many signed off by Brian Pitman himself.

The fall of Mexico into default at the turn of the 1980s resulted with the bank on bended knees asking the IMF to bail it out. This changed his course of thinking dramatically. At no time in his conversations with me would Sir Brian ever admit to his own involvement in the loans to Mexico or the mistakes of that time. “Mistakes were made and lessons were learnt,” was all he would allow, alluding to a collegiate responsibility of some kind. His sense of self preservation was very powerful, but so was his sense of duty to right a wrong.

If as an international banker he could have been perched on a pedestal, he had no sense of hubris around himself. In fact, he eschewed hubris. This made it easy for him to turn around and steer Lloyds towards the domestic high street business that was ultimately the more successful path and saw the bank’s market value rise from £1 billion to £20 billion. In this process he probably discovered his real penchant for leadership, which was in rallying the ordinary troops around himself. He eventually made it to chief executive, from where he led the merger of Lloyds Bank and TSB in 1995, before his appointment as chairman in 1997. He was knighted Sir Brian in 1994.

This innate ability to survive crisis also made him an invaluable resource for other companies in difficult circumstances, such as Next, the clothing retailer, and ITV. When asked what he thought about Next’s problems that surfaced just after he was made chairman, he was reported to have said to the CEO, “all good companies have the occasional hiccup … You’ll get through it.”

I sometimes do wonder, if despite outstanding leaders like Sir Brian, the UK’s modern history has that character flaw built in where it muddles from one period of brilliance to the next, interspersed by longer periods of wanton poverty, for want of a better description. The period of brilliance in banking was surely post 1986, featuring people like Sir Brian, Sir George Mathewson (whom we also know well), Sir Peter Bert and several others who built the strong institutions for the country. Then a whole new generation comes by and wastes the achievements all away and await for the next cohort of Sir Brians and Sir Georges to save them.

Having heard him speak on shareholder value several times now, I have this feeling that the media generally missed his point on the topic. His message was never “shareholder value at any cost.” There was always a subtle but important difference between the “shareholder value” of Sir Brian’s definition and that of the many greedy bankers who take on highly risky ventures in the name of profit. He never once used the words “profitability” or words like “strategy” or “concepts” in my conversations with him. On reflection, his discourse was also about the organic, getting the journey right than the destination or the goal itself.

My own visualisation of Sir Brian’s definition of “shareholder value” is that he set it up as an imaginary boss for himself, as he went about rallying people around what he wanted to do. “Shareholder value” was the reason for cutting costs, squeezing profitability from simple business processes. “Shareholder value” was the reason for preferring the cheaper alternative when hiring people or purchasing technology. “Shareholder value” was the boss to fear when he needed to call for integrity and accountability in management decision making. “Shareholder value” was the only consideration that a board of directors should concern themselves with when mulling over a proposal, instead of trying to usurping the role of management.

Even as he set it up as an imaginary boss, so that he could rally others around it, “shareholder value” was really only ever his servant, because he still ventured into some bold decisions and acquisitions that could have destroyed shareholder value if not executed successfully. Unlike the other renowned chairmans and CEOs of banks in the UK in his time, I suspect that he was not in the vein of a tight-fisted Scotsman. I swear I could make out a tiny twinkle in his eye, that of a mildly buccaneering Englishman, ever ready for some adventure, reigned in only by the lessons learnt from expensive mistakes in the previous years of a long life.

But he kept his wits about himself so very well, that all of us except those who were closest to him are really left guessing about how he ticked internally. Externally, he enjoyed the company of buccaneering entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson and others.

He was definitely a product of the post-inflation generation of the 1970s. I think the freedom to expand by the cash generated from organic domestic business gave him that innate sense of discipline than if he had to seek adventure on a leveraged business.

I think I was able to extrapolate how he engaged with his people to get things done for him from my own conversations with him. Whenever I told him why my company did what we did and the way we did, he would repeat what I had said to him, as if he accepted my reasoning completely at face value. His approach enabled him to evaluate me on the parameters I had set for myself without being distorted by his views of me. He hardly ventured on to describe other contributing factors that he may have observed. He never discussed strategy or directions. He spent most of the time listening and using the same words from the story to craft a view we could both share.

He never asked for too much, despite his stature. On a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to Jakarta in 2006, he asked at the counter if he could be upgraded from Business Class to First Class. He was then after all a board member of Singapore Airlines. I was able to see how stringent the airline staff were even to their own board member when the check-in staff refused to upgrade him even though he was tagged as director of the company in the system, because “there were plenty of seats”. He made nothing of it and enjoyed the one hour flight.

At the time of learning about his death, I was planning my visit to the UK next week. I was anxious to meet with him. I wanted very much to capture him on a TV interview for The Banking Conversation, not wanting to take it for granted that he would always be available. Despite his age, he still travelled as much as he could, but still he had started to definitely slow down considerably.

At the time of his death, he was throwing in his weight to deal with a whole set of new parameters that had come about in the banking industry. That of indiscriminate trading in toxic assets, the ballooning of the asset book through leveraged capital, everything that was destroying the banking system that he had built. A whole new ball game had arisen that was not present in the 1980s. He was keen to see British banks rescued, Northern Rock in particular, because his sense of nationalism did not allow for any decent British enterprise that gave people jobs and the country an industry, should be allowed to fail. But that agenda was for the next generation of bankers and regulators to determine.

With Sir Brian, it was never so much his advice that mattered. He never dished out much anyway. It was always what he stood for and where he stood that mattered. You were always reminded of it in a real way, given his physical height and stature, and in subtle ways, through his conversations.

Although he left us quite suddenly, we know for sure that he still stands silently by those who want to do what is good, what is honorable, what is right. How we do it is really up to us, he has his own tale through his rich and eventful life. In that regard, you might say that the best way to remember him is that of the perfect chairman, shaping the people who make things happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.