Two years ago the 56-year-old New Zealander was passed over in the race to become chief executive of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, even though he was widely seen as being groomed for the role.
If that raised eyebrows among more conservative figures in the City, it was also revealed that he once told a university magazine that he had twice failed an accountancy exam and was “more comfortable with people than figures”.
But a dose of humility may serve him well in an industry which has earned a dubious reputation for self-gratification. Mr McEwan’s decision to forfeit his bonus for two years and take a lower salary than Stephen Hester, whom he replaces, is a deliberate acknowledgement of continuing public outrage over banking excess.
However, the sacrifice will be softened by the £3.2 million share award he was reportedly given as a “golden hello” when he joined the bank just 12 months ago.
A married father-of-two, he was headhunted to run RBS’s retail arm and has thrown himself energetically into a £700m plan to improve the branch network. In an interview with The Scotsman in April he outlined his plans to put customers first and adopt new ways of allowing them to engage with the bank.
He will take over the top job at a time when the bank is on the mend but still in need of care and attention. It will require the combined skills of a street fighter and a diplomat to cope with political, as well as the ongoing pressures of restoring RBS to full health and to the private sector.
Mr McEwan may be a New Zealander, but his Scottish name could play well in his adopted country.
“Reviresco” is the McEwan, or McEwen, clan motto which translates, appropriately, as: “I grow strong again”.
A keen cyclist and water skier, he is a big fan of the All Blacks, the world’s leading rugby team. He played basketball for Massey University, one of New Zealand’s top universities, where he studied business and met his wife, Stephanie, who played on the women’s basketball team.
He has a relaxed, personable manner but a blunt approach to business, according to people who know him.
That was clear when he told investors and analysts at the March presentation that he had been shocked by what he had found in British banking.
Mr McEwan worked in the insurance and investment industries for more than 25 years, including as managing director of stockbroking business First NZ Capital Securities and chief executive of AXA New Zealand.
In Australia, he was executive general manager in charge of CBA’s branch network, before becoming head of retail banking services in 2007.