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Wealth Manager: SGPB Hambros' CEO on why the UK is a challenge

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by Elsa Buchanan on Aug 22, 2013 at 00:01

Eric Barnett cuts an unusual figure in the Société Générale’s private banking offices in London, not because he seems to lack the bilingual fluidity of his colleagues, but because he is a true Londoner – from Kew Gardens, Richmond – and has been at the same firm for more than 27 years.

For the young man who landed in banking more by default rather than by design, becoming chief executive of Société Générale Private Banking Hambros (SGPB Hambros) during the month that saw the Bank of England bail out Northern Rock signalled the start of a new era.

‘My time as CEO has been entirely one of crisis and without wanting to tempt fate, I am practically the only bank CEO left from that period,’ he jokes.

After spending a couple of unsuccessful weeks studying English at university, Barnett switched instead to economics. When he graduated in 1983, he landed a job in NatWest’s international division.

‘It was a time when unemployment was higher than it is today and jobs were going out in the banking sector,’ he says.

Three years later, he joined his former NatWest boss, who had left for Hambros. He recalls: ‘It was a prestigious place to land in those days, as it was the largest investment bank in the City in the 1960s.’

Within Hambros, Barnett ran structured products, debt recovery and corporate teams until the mid-1990s when he moved out of the commercial bank into private banking.

‘Those banks used to have an entrepreneurial side,’ he remembered. ‘Hambros’ chairman used to say merchant banks were like parasites: they would land on a particular vein, suck it dry and move to the next one. It was not really strategic then, more opportunistic. Hambros did it all, from estate planning to life insurance.’

After spells in London running the leveraged debt team, where ‘you knew a lot about very little’, Barnett moved to Guernsey. There, he learned the ropes of the ‘full-service’ bank running.

‘It was excellent fun and a very good way to get an oversight of how to run a bank. From a career point of view, and wanting to get into private banking, it was an excellent grounding for me,’ he explains.

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