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Noel Quinn is leaving HSBC to pursue everyone's fantasy career

An AI image of Noel Quinn in some flowers

Something has changed in the mind of Noel Quinn, the man who HSBC didn't necessarily want to become the CEO, but who became the CEO anyway and then did a reasonable job driving through a restructuring. Having reportedly declared in February that he was "keen to steer the lender in the medium term," even though there were "tough times ahead", Quinn has unexpectedly had enough.

Quinn has worked for HSBC for 37 years. In a statement released today, he described his CEO interlude as "intense" and said he's off to "get a better balance between...personal and business life," in the form of a "portfolio career." Unfortunately, he can't go just yet. First, he needs to help find a successor. Soon.

What will Quinn's portfolio career look like? He doesn't say, but the usual approach is a few non-executive directorships, some advisory roles at start-ups, maybe writing a memoir. The more vigorous former banking CEOs seem to emerge from Barclays, where Bob Diamond has invested in Africa, is chairing a TikTok-style social media platform and owns British bank Panmure Gordon. Another former Barclays CEO, Antony Jenkins, is running his own fintech. 

Quinn, though, might not want to be so busy. His first move will likely be to stop travelling constantly to Hong Kong. His second move might be to take a long look at the post-HSBC endeavours of Stuart Gulliver, another ex-HSBC CEO who currently has around eight small advisory and non-exec jobs.  In the UK, the average non-exec job pays £72k. 

HSBC presumably gave Quinn the option of taking a sabbatical in the style of Georges Elhedery, who spent six months pursuing "personal growth" before returning to run the investment bank in 2022. Quinn evidently refused. He's been looking a lot tireder and thinner of late, and may not have the appetite for the "tough times" he reportedly thinks are to come.

Which tough times are they? HSBC released its first quarter results today. Within the investment bank, its equities business did extraordinarily well while its FX traders floundered. HSBC's investment bankers saw fee revenues fall 10%. Across the bank as a whole, profits fell 2%. There are few signs of very tough times yet, but Quinn will be aware that HSBC is exposed to any geopolitical instability involving China.

It's possible that working in the upper ranks of HSBC is a particularly exhausting experience. Quinn's immediate predecessor, John Flint, was ejected in 2019 after attempting to enact a transformation to improve employee well-being, which he'd called “the Healthiest Human System.”

Speaking to Bloomberg three weeks ago, Quinn said the best investment he'd made was in his career. "I've tended to have a clear idea what I wanted to do with my career, where I wanted to go," he said, before adding that his family was more valuable than money. 

Whatever Quinn does next, he will probably not be working in crypto, which he said is worth nothing at all. 

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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