A Scottish banker, I wonder, as I climb the stairs of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. (HSBC) heritage office in Mumbai to meet its chief executive officer Sandy Flockhart. How much more reserved can one get?

On the fifth floor, there are Shrewsbury cookies, ginger nut biscuits and slivers of cheese sandwiches with tea and coffee. But post lunch with stock market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) and an afternoon full of meetings, Sandy Flockhart is not eating. Instead, he is talking emerging markets with a group of journalists. And yes, he is measured and moderate and all you would imagine from a banker such as him in his dark suit and black and gold cufflinks.

Later that evening I find he can be more expansive, but for now Flockhart—flanked by HSBC India CEO Naina Lal Kidwai and chief financial officer Raj Tandon—emphasizes HSBC’s traditional strengths and the bank’s commitment to expand based on these strengths. It seems deliberate, coming as it does at a time when there has been criticism from some investors that HSBC hasn’t expanded in emerging Asian markets as aggressively as it could have.

Certainly for HSBC, whose write-offs in the US subprime crisis stand at $5 billion (about Rs19,700 crore), emerging markets are now crucial. And Sandy Flockhart who moved to Hong Kong in June as HSBC CEO has had much experience in all of these areas—from Thailand and Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia and Latin America and the Caribbean. For him, it has been a complete circumnavigation of the globe—from Hong Kong to West Asia to the Americas and now, back to Hong Kong.

The gatherer: Flockhart enjoys the fruits of his travel, from collecting art and picking up languages to golfing. (Jayachandran / Mint)

Acquisitions such as these in emerging markets seem to be the way forward. Easier said than done perhaps, with valuations and regulatory issues limiting the extent of ownership, but HSBC would like to nevertheless “where the opportunity to acquire fits our requirement," says Flockhart.

In Vietnam, HSBC recently acquired a 10% stake in Bao Viet Insurance and Finance Group, Vietnam’s biggest state-owned insurer, for $255 million. And as for their acquisition of the Korea Exchange Bank, Flockhart concludes that part of the conversation in wonderful bankerese: “As far as I’m concerned, we are where we are and that is where we’re at."

Later, we move downstairs to HSBC’s Premier Lounge for a chat. Here’s where the bank’s big customers, with bank balances of more than Rs25 lakh, are meant to relax while their banking is transacted on the side. It’s a pleasant setting, and certainly one where Flockhart is more forthcoming.

We go back to the time, 35 years ago, when a young lawyer straight out of Edinburgh University joined HSBC. “I wanted to be a bit more international," says Flockhart. “Of course, I didn’t know then it would be 35 years and still counting."

Flockhart has, in fact, never been posted in his home country. So, how does it feel to be constantly on the move? “It is fascinating. I have seen parts of the world I would have never seen before and I have made lots of friends."

And has it been hard for his family? Flockhart considers. “I think you have to have a very supportive wife and, thankfully, I have," he says. Juliet and Sandy Flockhart have been married for 29 years. That’s why Hong Kong is so special to Flockhart; it is where two of his four children were born and it is where he met Juliet, who was working in a trading company when Flockhart was first posted there.

“She’s a wonderful linguist," says Flockhart, and the couple—who speak both Thai and, now, Spanish—enjoy the opportunities that travel gives them. They collect art from all over the world, including some beautiful antique tapestries from India, and have schooled their children to give them an international outlook as well.

So, what does Flockhart do when he’s not working? “I love golf. I have played golf since I was a boy of four or five. I have played all over the world—Latin America, USA, Mexico, Saudi Arabia," says the banker.

Flockhart has played in Mumbai as well—early morning the same day this reporter interviewed him, at the Willingdon Golf Course, as well as on his earlier trips to India, where he has played both at Willingdon and at the Chembur Golf Course. “I think the great thing about golf is that you have somebody for three-and-a-half hours on the golf course and maybe half an hour you get to know them and that’s very good; but you always have to remember they also have four-and-a-half hours to get to know you!"

And where does this banker invest his own money? “I am not a person who actually buys and sells. I select the right make-up of earnings, integrity, and that is the type of company I like to invest in. I like to hold on to it." Flockhart favours property and telecom, especially in emerging markets. And no, he desists from buying much real estate himself, despite all the temptations to do so in the wonderfully scenic spots he has been posted in, such as New Zealand, Thailand and even the Caribbean islands. “I don’t have the time for it," he says quite simply. “In today’s frenetic life, busy jobs, responsibilities to spouse and children, if you can simplify your life, so much the better." 

“My only claim to exotica is my restored Jaguar XK140," Flockhart confesses. But that vintage piece of gleaming machinery is strictly for weekends. Weekdays, it is up early and to work by 8am in a nicely modern Lexus.  

We move on to talk holidays; his favourite holiday spot is the seaside resort of La Paz in Mexican Vaja California. We talk food and his fondness for good Thai and Indian curries; of family and his home in Scotland, where his mother lives; and of his alma mater University of Edinburgh, where his three younger sons studied as well. But Flockhart draws the line at religion or politics: “I like to think I’m a banker and prefer to stay in the banking space," he says with an air of quiet finality.

And then it’s time for Flockhart to rush back, check out from the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, and take the long drive north to Mumbai airport, and from there to Hong Kong, where the family will shortly be converging for the Christmas holidays.


Sandy (Alexander) Flockhart

Born: 22 December 1951, Edinburgh (Scotland)

Education: LLB, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1974

Work Profile: Joined HSBC after graduation; CEO, HSBC Thailand, 1992-94; deputy managing director, Saudi British Bank (HSBC’s 40% owned associate bank), 1995; managing director, Saudi British Bank, 1997; managed personal and commercial banking for HSBC in the US, Panama and Mexico, 1999-2002; CEO, HSBC Mexico, 2002-06; group managing director, HSBC Latin America, 2006-July 2007; CEO and global head, commercial banking, HSBC, July onward

Favourite Gadget: Good Italian coffee maker

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