Saturday profile: Hourican forces his way into Hester's plans

FEW people who know new Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Stephen Hester claim he is desperately sentimental.

So it was praise indeed for the new chief executive of RBS's global markets and banking division (GMB), 38-year-old John Hourican, when he was singled out by his boss in a recent talk with The Scotsman.

Hester, all hard-headed focus as he seeks to restore the Royal's battered reputation, softened a bit when he said that, while he would also bring in outside expertise, he was sure there was "a bunch of really talented people" within the bank already.

The only specific name he gave was Hourican. Talking of homegrown talents who were "not yet visible" outside Gogarburn, Hester said: "One example is John Hourican who was completely invisible to the outside world and has now been put in as chief executive of GMB, which is our area of biggest business challenges."

Having only met Hourican weeks earlier, Hester said he was "doing a fantastic job". The new chief executive had "high hopes he will turn out to be a great success story".

Heady stuff. Although previously below the parapet as far as the City is concerned, Hourican is described by people who know him as a rather smooth Irishman "with brilliant forensic accounting skills".

One source said: "He is well thought of as a banker. He worked in the leveraged finance business and was put into ABN Amro as finance director (when it was taken over a year ago].

"He did a good job. He has the Irish charm to go with a sharp intellect."

A hint of a man with a bit of colour as well as numbers in his personality came at the RBS leveraged finance team Christmas party several years back.

It is reported Hourican stepped up to the plate at the heavily-attended party at London's Oxo Tower to impressively demonstrate his samba dancing skills alongside two Brazilian dancers.

Wags might suggest they hope his waltz is also up to scratch as RBS's business record since nearly going belly-up in the early-1990s could be summed up as "slow, slow, quick, quick, slow".

So who is the man charged with helping restore the fortunes of a division that got mired in subprime, leading to writedowns of 5.9 billion in the first half of 2008 and RBS's first halftime loss?

And how will he approach the job? Well, suggesting there is steel as well as style in the Hourican mix, his first job will be to oversee 2,700 job losses in GMB, which is essentially the Royal's wholesale banking arm. That is roughly 15 per cent of the division's 20,000 workforce.

Employees will hope the new boss sticks to a maxim he has told insiders is one of the best pieces of corporate advice he has ever had. It was from Iain Robertson, who built up the forerunner of the current GBM division in the early and mid-1990s: "Clear decisions, humane implementation."

Hester has made it clear that he wants a more cautious lending policy in wholesale banking, and Hourican is bound to take his cue from that.

One UK banking analyst said: "Hourican is an unknown quantity to the UK analyst community.

"But we know second-hand that RBS's investor relations team has dealt with him quite a lot.

"They say he is easy to interact with, is a good banker who knows the industry."

Another analyst said: "Exotic is out at RBS now, caution is in. Johnny Cameron (executive chairman of the GBM division] ran a bullish operation, which worked until 18 months ago. Hourican will not have that option."

The new man was born in Ireland on 24 July, 1970. He attended the National University of Ireland and Dublin City University before starting his career with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

At PwC, he specialised in corporate finance and auditing, working in Dublin, London and Hong Kong before joining RBS in 1997.

One person who knows him said: "John has said PwC was a tour of duty around the world. Good fun, but also a superb training. He said it taught him to think."

He joined RBS in 1997, making it just two employers since leaving university. A sign, perhaps, that he is not professionally channel-hopping by nature?

Before his stint at ABN (itself hardly an easy gig as it amounted to a dismantling job to share the assets with the Royal's consortium partners), Hourican held a variety of senior positions within the wholesale banking division.

This included being on the division's board as finance director and more recently as chief operating officer, where he was responsible for managing many thousands of people globally. From September 2006, he was head of RBS's leveraged finance and high yield business in Europe and Asia Pacific.

Insiders say this experience will help him because he already knows a lot of the wrinkles of the business.

They also say Hourican is under no illusions that there is any early obvious end in sight for the wholesale banking industry's severe problems.

And away from the office Hourican is married to Rioghnach, with four children, two boys and two girls, between the ages of ten months and nine.

The family have a holiday home in Ireland, when they like sailing in their boat – the Yknot _ around the rugged Irish coast.

He is by all accounts "a very poor golfer", and has developed an interest in taking lessons in flying helicopters.

So far he has notched up 35 hours flying time, but not so much in the past year when he was almost permanently based in Amsterdam knocking ABN into shape.

With the in-tray looking full to overflowing in an RBS wholesaling division that does not have its problems to seek, it might be some yet before that helicopter pilot's licence is in the post.

BACKGROUND

JOHN Hourican was born in Dublin, one of three brothers and three sisters. His father was an accountant, while his mother stayed at home bringing up the children. Now that they are grown up she works for the Irish department of agriculture.

After studying at the National University of Ireland and Dublin City University, where he emerged with a double major in economics and sociology, he took a postgraduate degree in accounting.

Hourican joined accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1991, working in London, Dublin and Hong Kong before moving to Royal Bank of Scotland as an associate director in its leveraged finance unit in 1996.

He moved through the ranks of the wholesale banking division, becoming finance director of the structured finance unit in 2001, FD of corporate banking and financial markets between 2002 and 2005, and chief operating officer after that.