The Swedish bank boss who likes to do things differently
- 6 January 2014
- From the section Business
Anders Bouvin is the boss of the most successful bank you've probably never heard of.
And he, like the bank he runs, will challenge your preconceptions.
For starters, this African-born, Swedish chief executive of Handelsbanken's growing UK operation doesn't receive an annual bonus.
He hasn't seen his bank fined for incentivising his staff to flog inappropriate products.
And unlike many high-flying bank bosses who seem driven more by short-termism and share options than corporate loyalty, Mr Bouvin has been with the Swedish bank for 28 years.
Most surprisingly, the 55-year-old supports west London's Queens Park Rangers Football Club with a passion intriguing for a Swede who spent the first 10 years of his life growing up in Zimbabwe.
Mr Bouvin's father was Sweden's honorary general consul to Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, and the head of an asbestos mine.
Mr Bouvin recalls childhood memories of he and his brother fighting with bundles of fluffy asbestos, savannah watering holes fringed with antelope, zebra and lion, and their car being chased by angry rhinos through the bush.
But all that changed abruptly when his parents moved back to Sweden in 1968.
The contrast between the rigid formalism of Rhodesia and the liberalism of 1960s Malmo was extreme, he says.
"Sweden was very good for me. It was like total freedom after my regimented boys' school [in Zimbabwe]," says Mr Bouvin. "As a Swede who didn't speak Swedish I was quite an exotic figure."
But he picked up the language quickly, fitted in, and was obviously academically gifted.
"At first I thought I wanted to be a diplomat," he says. "But then I realised I was actually more interested in business and macroeconomics."
He received a degree in economics from the University of Lund, Sweden, as well as spending two years in France, at the Sorbonne in Reims and the University of Montpellier.
Handelsbanken was the first company Mr Bouvin applied to for a job, in 1985.
"I had no idea about the bank's business model at that stage, but was thrilled to be offered a job," he says.
As luck would have it, he soon realised that he'd landed in a company "whose values coincided completely with my own".
Those values - long-termism, and a philosophy of decentralisation encapsulated in the slogan "the branch is the bank" - seem almost too good to be true in a current banking era of fines, debt crises and outsourced customer service.
Big banks, according to the popular narrative, were the primary causers of the global debt crisis thanks to their reckless investment in high-risk mortgage-backed bonds. Critics dubbed them "casino banks" that had subverted old-fashioned, prudent banking.
But Handelsbanken remained above the fray, emerging with a balance sheet strong enough to make European banking regulators purr with delight.
Even one of its institutional shareholders described the group as "thrillingly boring".
Mr Bouvin argues that the group's success - it made £1bn in global after-tax profits for the first nine months of 2013 - is down to the bank's belief in the primacy of customer service and localism.
The branch manager is trusted to make prudent lending and investment decisions based on one-to-one relationships with customers.
"Working in the branch network was the best thing I ever did," says Mr Bouvin. "I flourished building customer relationships, and being empowered to make customers satisfied was really great."
This local empowerment - the apparent antithesis of modern automated banking - is core to Handelsbanken's philosophy, first proposed by the bank's then boss Jan Wallander in 1970.
He persuaded shareholders it was in their long-term interests for the bank to grow organically, using profits, not debt, to fund new branch openings.
And the bank does almost zero marketing because, as Mr Bouvin says: "Our customers don't feel better because they can read the bank's name on a football shirt or on the side of a bus."
This next to no marketing keeps overheads down and return on equity up.
At Handelsbanken returning a share of the profits to long-term staff is also key. If the bank exceeds the average profitability rate of its peers, then surplus profits are put into a fund and distributed to all the staff.
But they can only receive these accumulated benefits when they turn 60, thus encouraging long-term thinking and loyalty.
Some long-serving staff retiring now are receiving payouts in the region of £1.4m, says Mr Bouvin.
With 169 UK branches from Aberdeenshire to Cornwall, the bank's British operation is now growing at its fastest rate for five years.
Mr Bouvin says Handelsbanken, which has its headquarters in London, is expanding to meet increased demand while some of its larger rivals get smaller.
"Many banks are having to absorb huge losses and have had to shrink to repair their balance sheets... and there are clear indications that SMEs [small and medium-sized businesses] are bearing the brunt of this. It's very sad."
All in all, Anders Bouvin appears the least likely candidate for executive burnout you'll ever meet.
When not watching his beloved QPR with his similarly fanatical son, he likes to cook experimentally. "I'm my local fishmonger's favourite customer," he says.
But underneath the stereotypical Swedish orderliness and calm, a touch of the wild still lurks.
When back in Sweden he likes nothing better than hunting grouse in the country's forests and open expanses, unencumbered by any British squeamishness or sentimentality.
Anders Bouvin - a poster boy for the acceptable face of banking?