Sir Win Bischoff, who has been at the heart of the City of London for decades, is retiring. It’s just a shame that he’s not departing on a higher note, says Jane Lewis.
“Audit watchdog leaders quit in overhaul after scandals”. So ran a headline in The Guardian in March, announcing the disbandment of the Financial Reporting Council. It won’t be much missed. Criticised for the “weakness of its response” to a spate of accounting failures, ranging from Carillion to BHS, the FRC was recently slammed by MPs as “too timid”.
It’s hardly a rousing finale to the sometime sparkling career of its chairman, Sir Win Bischoff, who will step down in October after a half-century career in finance, says the Financial Times. Appointed CEO of Schroders aged just 42, Bischoff, now 78, “has been a quietly subversive financier at the heart of the City of London for decades” – “a wine-sipping fixture at Square Mile social events most nights of the week”.
It’s hard to credit he’ll soon be departing for good. “Still sprightly and a touch rosy-cheeked from years of wining and dining”, Bischoff seems “the embodiment” of the old-school British banker – “even without the bowler hat and rolled umbrella” that were the uniform of his generation when he joined Schroders in the 1960s. But appearances can be deceptive. Having spent his earliest years in war-torn Germany he “lacks the Eton and Oxbridge pedigree of his peers” and has led a peripatetic life.
Born in Aachen in 1941, the son of a farmer, young Win arrived in South Africa – where his father had set up an import/export business – in 1955, notes The Spectator. After studying economics at university, Bischoff’s father advised a career in banking on the grounds that “he’d come across many bankers when building his business and none of them seemed to be very good”, Bischoff told Board Intelligence. “It was rather a backhanded compliment.”
Paternal connections saw Bischoff start his career at Chase Manhattan, before moving to London to join Schroders in 1966. But it was in Hong Kong, where he was dispatched in 1970 to open an outpost, that he really made his mark. Bischoff was in his element working the colony’s “clubby” business networks, says the FT, scoring a major coup in 1971 when he floated the nascent empire of billionaire tycoon Li Ka-shing. He reckons he was made CEO in 1984 because rivals who’d stayed in London in the 1970s were suffering “a sense of negativism”. So “they skipped a generation and chose me”.
It proved an outstanding call, says Financial News. Thanks to Sir Win’s “wizardry”, Schroders’ shares “were among the best-three performing investments on the London Stock Exchange in the 1980s” (the others were Hanson and Polly Peck) – making billionaires of the bank’s founding family. Valued at £112m in 1984, Schroders was worth £4.5bn by 2000, when Bischoff took the call to sell its banking business to Citigroup.
Bischoff had a “good” financial crisis – stepping in to steady Citi after Chuck “we’re still dancing” Prince was ejected. But he was less sure-footed at Lloyds after being drafted in to chair the bank in 2009 following “its disastrous HBOS acquisition”. Indeed, Lloyds “legacy issues” have continued to haunt Bischoff – particularly the mistreatment of small-business customers following the HBOS fraud scandal.
Still, there are plenty of “resonant positives to offset the end-of-career negatives”, says the FT. Bischoff exudes a “quiet wisdom that bullish financiers might do well to heed”. Money “needs to find a home”, he says – and it has found it again in debt securities. “Astonishing.” Having been through more than his share of market crises, Bischoff “sees another looming”.