Francesco Ceccato, Barclays Europe’s CEO: On deals, regulation and choosing Dublin

Brexit prompted Barclays to chose Republic as its EU base

Hanging on a wall of the modest Dublin city centre office of Francesco Ceccato, Barclays Europe's chief executive of 18 months, is a black and white photograph of an orchestra conductor at full tilt.

It's of the Milan-born investment banker's father Aldo, whose international career took his family for stints to the likes of Glyndebourne in England and Paris, and, for longer periods, Detroit and Hamburg.

“He’s the person who gave me the sense of what a strong work ethic is,” says Ceccato, in the almost Scandinavian-American accent acquired in his younger years, of his father, now in his late 80s. “I witnessed that growing up. If we were on holiday by the seaside, for example, he would abscond at 7am and take his music scores with him and sit on a rock for three hours, reading and listening to the music in his head, before coming back to join us.

“My father once told me that his greatest fortune in life, apart from having a healthy family, of course, is that if he wasn’t paid to do what he did, he would have paid to do it.”

Ceccato has worked over the past 27 years for storied financial houses including Lazard, GE Capital, Bear Stearns and, since 2010, Barclays. In September 2020, he was appointed chief executive of Barclays Bank Ireland, the British bank's chosen EU centre to maintain access to clients across the single market post-Brexit.

Barclays Europe is now the internal name for the Irish subsidiary, a business that dates back to 1978, but which had a balance sheet of only about €3 billion of assets at the time of the Brexit referendum.

By the time Ceccato was appointed it had become – marginally, and briefly – the largest bank in the Republic, with transfers of tens of billions of euros of assets during the pandemic, leaving it with a balance sheet of almost €135 billion. Barclays Europe's assets contracted to €117 billion last year, according to accounts published this week, restoring Bank of Ireland to the top of the heap (with its own balance sheet expanding to €155 billion).

While Dublin tops the list of financial destinations for post-Brexit EU hubs and activity relocations from London, according to the EY Financial Services Brexit Tracker, this has been driven by asset management companies and niche insurers. Only two major banks, Barclays and Bank of America moved, as a direct result of the vote, to establish the Republic as their EU base. Most others have favoured moving activities to Frankfurt and Paris.

For Barclays, Dublin was an obvious pick, according to Ceccato, resulting in a doubling of its local workforce to about 300 and the taking on larger offices on the corner of Dawson Street and Molesworth Street, above The Ivy restaurant.

"One [reason] is the cultural proximity between Ireland and the UK – and also Ireland and the US. We believed that we could attract English-speakers here from the US, the UK, India and other places. And that's proven to be accurate," he says.

The other is the fact that Barclays already had a licensed bank in Dublin.

The enlarged business has branches in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, and a total staff count of about 1,700. It reported a net profit of €195 million last year.

Its main income comes from corporate banking, led by Irishwoman Helen Kelly, and investment banking, which had a very good crisis helping clients raise equity and debt to bolster their finances. Barclays Europe also has a division spanning the group's long-standing German credit cards operation and a growing private banking business, under Pat McCormack, that moved into France, Italy and Spain last year.

Just under half of the office desks in Dublin were in use when I interviewed Ceccato – including a team mainly involved in financial derivatives in one room, and rows of staff involved equity finance in another – overlooked by the chief executive’s glass-walled office.

It’s a far cry from when Ceccato first landed in Ireland to find himself stuck working from his city-centre apartment amid Covid restrictions. “The lockdown was not the best way to experience Dublin,” he says. “But I needed to learn my job. And we needed to develop the business.”

The world of remote working also allowed Ceccato spend extended periods in the UK where his wife, Charlotte Black, a tax lawyer, and four teenage children continue to live. He's now back to the regular weekend commute.

Ceccato first took an interest in banking at the age of 16, when he did an internship at Swiss private bank Julius Baer while at boarding school in the Alpine state.

After studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University (the ultimate gateway degree to the corridors of power and influence in the UK) and undertaking a masters in philosophy and economics at the London School of Economics, the Italian joined boutique investment bank Lazard. It would see him work on deals including British American Tobacco's 1997 sale of its financial services operations for $18.6 billion to Zurich Insurance.

Following a stint with UBS in London, he worked with General Electric's GE Capital financial services unit for almost seven years in the UK and US, before joining Bear Stearns, then the fifth-largest investment bank on Wall Street, in March 2006, at the height of a global finance boom.

While Ceccato’s role at Bear Stearns was as a deals adviser to outside insurance firms, it gave him a front-row seat as one of the most venerable names in finance went into meltdown, culminating in a US taxpayer-backed rescue takeover by JP Morgan in March 2008.

Bear Stearns's implosion, amid an over-reliance on wholesale funding and a high exposure to subprime mortgages, turned out to be a canary in the mineshaft. Six months later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and another rival, Merrill Lynch, was forced into the arms of Bank of America.

Ceccato was one of the lucky ones to survive the JP Morgan axe as it took on Bear Stearns, because he was working on a fee-generating life insurance fundraising deal at the time.

Still, it was around this time of heightened uncertainty in the industry – and with a wife who didn’t have a licence to practice law in the US and who was pregnant with their fourth child – that Ceccato began thinking about returning to Europe. He also reckoned at that time that his native Italian and fluent German and French languages would stand to him on this side of the Atlantic.

Barclays, the British lender that traces its origins back to goldsmith banking in 1690, wasn’t what he had in mind.

Having initially rebuffed a headhunter for the bank, because he felt his future lay in insurance, Ceccato agreed to meet the bank's then finance director, Chris Lucas, in the summer of 2009. "I just had to spend an hour with him to know I wanted to work with this man."

Joining Barclays as group head of corporate development early the following year, Ceccato was able, as a former Wall Street insider, to straddle the gap between Barclays and the prized US investment banking business it had acquired from the wreckage of Lehmans in 2008.

Barclays avoided a government bailout itself with the help of more than £7 billion (€8.4bn) raised from investors in Abu Dhabi and Qatar at the height of the financial crisis.

With a well-buttressed balance sheet, the bank went on an acquisitions drive as rivals licked their wounds. And Ceccato was the man. Deals he led include the takeover of Dutch group ING's UK retail banking unit and the mammoth task of merging Barclays's majority-held Absa bank in South Africa with its interests in eight other African countries. He was also involved in Barclay's purchase of the credit cards business of Citigroup's then UK online bank, Egg.

There were some tidying up deals too, including the sale in 2012 of the bank's almost 20 per cent stake in asset management giant BlackRock, which Barclays had received three years earlier as part-payment for former investment arm BGI.

Seven months after the ousting in July 2012 of the larger-than-life Barclays chief Bob Diamond, in the wake of the group being fined almost £300 million for its role in the Libor interest rate-rigging scandal, his successor, Anthony Jenkins, a retail and business banker, said he was intent on "shredding" the legacy left by his predecessor.

Ceccato was handed the task of selling off billions of pounds of what were now deemed to be non-core assets, including its retail banking operations in Italy and France and a sell-down of its stake in its Africa unit.

The banker returned briefly to his roots as a deals adviser to third parties in 2018, co-heading the bank’s European and Middle East financial institutions group, before landing the Dublin gig.

Ceccato now finds himself serving his fifth chief executive at the group. The last chief, Jes Staley, stepped down in November after an investigation by UK financial watchdogs into his links to the sex offender and disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Ceccato is reluctant to go into the departure, other than to say he was surprised by the timing of the exit. Still, the new chief executive, Indian-born CS Venkatakrishnan – known as Venkat – has been clear that the group’s universal banking model is here to stay.

“We are a large consumer bank, managing an excellent credit card franchise, as well as the leading corporate bank and one of the largest global investment banks,” Venkat told analysts last month as the group reported a record £6.38 billion net profit for 2021. “Each is a successful business in its own right, but together, it comprised a resilient and balanced group.”

While Venkat has said that Barclays's direct exposure to the Russia-Ukraine war is limited, the indirect impact on the European economy is a different story. Barclays Europe's own annual report warns: "An escalation in geopolitical tensions or increased use of protectionist measures, such as in the Ukraine and Russia conflict, may have a material adverse effect on the bank's business."

Ceccato, for the record, doesn't harbour any ambitions of entering the Irish retail banking market as the final overseas banks in this space, Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland, prepare to exit a sector grappling with high regulatory capital demands and low returns. "I would never say never. But I think we really like the business we have here," he says.

But he has some thoughts on the evolving local market, where competition is shrinking rapidly and the three remaining banks plan to carve up the exiting lenders’ loan books between themselves.

“Zooming out, what have I observed in my travels, in my 26 years of being around this market, in various different continents? I think that retail banking tends to work best where there is a competitive oligopoly,” he says, referring to a market structure were a small number of players dominate.

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t want innovation, that doesn’t mean that I want to stymie small banks. But when the chips are down, it is the strength of an oligopoly that really helps the financial sector get out of a tough situation.”

While there have been suggestions from some quarters of the financial sector that Irish supervisors have become overly intrusive and conservative, Ceccato chooses his words carefully.

"Our relationship with the CBI [Central Bank of Ireland] is constructive. They're a demanding regulator – no question about that," he says. "I think that it is important that an eye is kept on the proportionality of the regulation."

Ceccato says he doesn’t understand why the CBI categorises Barclays Europe as a systemically important bank in Ireland, meaning it is caught by additional capital buffers imposed by the local regulator on such companies.

“We don’t really know why we’re considered as a systemic financial institution for Ireland. Yes, you can look at our size, but if you look at what we do in Ireland, it is not systemic to the Irish economy,” he says.

He also takes issue with the scope of a planned senior executive accountability regime (SEAR) for financial firms, aimed at making it easier to hold managers in banks and other financial firms accountable for failings under their watch. As things stand, the rules will apply to top overseas branch staff of firms regulated in the State.

"I spent seven years in an all-male boarding school in Switzerland. I have no problem with discipline and fitness and probity. If anything, I'd like to think of myself as somebody who drives discipline as opposed to [someone who] tries to sort of get derogations from discipline," he says. "But Ireland is the only country in the [EU] to introduce a regime like this. And the way that it's currently drafted, it appears to us to incorporate an extraterritorial dimension."

Executives affected by SEAR will be those that need regulator approval to hold their job. That includes managers of overseas branches of Irish-regulated banks like Barclays Europe.

“If a bank with a similar business strategy and similar business ambition to us had decided to incorporate [as a result of Brexit] in Germany, they’d have none of this,” he says.

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