Fall guy: Public duffing-ups are an everyday part of life for RBS boss Ross McEwan
Rugby commentators often refer to the ‘hospital pass’ – a suicidal lob to a team-mate which leaves the poor wretch getting unavoidably nobbled by an opponent.
Of all the ill-judged offloads that will take place in today’s Six Nations kick-off, you’re unlikely to witness one more wince-inducing than the pass Ross McEwan has chosen to catch.
As chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, the towering Kirk Douglas look-a-like has been tossed a proper chiropractor’s job.
When he took the helm in 2013, state-owned RBS was a billion-pound loss-maker facing vast fines in America over mis-sold mortgage securities and an object of public hate since Fred Goodwin had turned the once proud Scottish institution into a rancid pile of haggis meat.
Five years on, and little has changed. RBS remains in taxpayers’ hands, the balance book is still decimated and its reputation whiffier than a Southside Edinburgh public lav.
For McEwan, 60, public duffing-ups are therefore an everyday part of life. This week it was at the hands of the Treasury Select Committee, where he was grilled on the behaviour of the bank’s Global Restructuring Group, the notorious post-crisis unit accused of grinding many small businesses into the ground.
Viewers compared his performance to a rush-hour pile-up on London’s busy North Circular.
And to think, just six years ago McEwan was living with wife Stephanie on a peaceful cattle farm outside of Auckland breeding his own cows.
He and Stephanie, with whom he has two daughters, had met playing basketball at university, where McEwan twice failed his accountancy exams. Oh, how RBS critics have had a field day over that.
But then, in many ways, he is the most unlikely banker. ‘More comfortable with humans than numbers,’ is how he once described himself.
His career began in HR, occupying personnel-type jobs at Unilever, Dunlop and National Mutual.
His big break came at Axa where he rose to become one of the youngest chief executives in New Zealand, running the local operations aged just 40.
When he moved to be head of retail banking at Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), it was assumed he was being groomed for the chief executive role. So when the top job came available in 2010, it appeared McEwan’s for the taking. But it was not to be.
The disappointment steered him as far away as he could possibly go – to Edinburgh, where he agreed to run RBS’s retail arm.
McEwan handles every barb and brickbat with an admirable politeness. A quietly decent man, one suspects, doing a difficult job
When boss Stephen Hester was forced out the following year, McEwan was appointed as the unflashy safe pair of hands, albeit one handed a £3.2million ‘golden hello.’ His pay, which peaked at £3.8million two years ago, continues to rankle.
Critics point out that McEwan has hardly set the Scottish heather on fire during his tenure. RBS lost £7billion last year, taking losses since the state bailout to £58billion.
There have been IT failures, thousands of lay-offs and repeated grumbles that he has failed to show due contrition toward small business owners done over by the odious GRG. More pertinently, the bank is still 71 per cent owned by the taxpayer.
It should be noted that McEwan handles every barb and brickbat with an admirable politeness. A quietly decent man, one suspects, doing a difficult job.
He’s a man of modest tastes. Not for him the deep-pile carpeting, personalised leather car seats and seafood kitchens that Fred the Shred insisted upon.
He likes to return Down Under two or three times a year to cycle, water-ski, deliver the calves and generally forget about that insomnia-inducing balance sheet.
He was said to be in the running again last year for the CBA job, but told colleagues he has unfinished business at RBS.
However, when the Financial Conduct Authority’s long-awaited report on the GRG is finally published, probably in the next six months, it will likely result in another mound of manure being dumped on RBS’s Edinburgh HQ.
After which, a trip to those lush green fields of New Zealand won’t be able to come soon enough.
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