António Horta-Osório: the tennis ace who saved Lloyds Bank

António Horta-Osório was determined to rescue Britain’s largest high-street bank from disaster, and he succeeded, if at the cost of his own health. Can he repeat the trick at stricken Credit Suisse?

Asked to identify the high point of his career to date, António Horta-Osório pinpoints an afternoon in May 2017 when he got a call from a Treasury official saying: “António, we’ve sold the final shares”. After eight long years, Lloyds Bank was finally fully re-privatised. He called a staff conference and said: “‘We did it. We gave the taxpayers’ money back. And it’s a great tribute to you’. We made a toast. It was a really good moment.” 

Sleepless in the City

Whatever else he accomplishes now that he is off to Credit Suisse, the suave Portuguese banker will always be remembered in Britain as the man who brought Lloyds back from the brink, says the Financial Times – famously at a cost to his own health. Horta-Osório faced a big job rebuilding the broken bank after the banking crisis, but the real test came within months of his 2011 appointment when the eurozone crisis threatened to freeze funding markets again. “I could see the bank might die,” said Horta-Osório – and it stopped him sleeping. “I took it really to heart as my responsibility to save it.” Diagnosed with stress-induced exhaustion, he was sent to the Priory clinic to recover. 

Horta-Osório, 57, traces his sense of duty back to his early years in a Jesuit school in Lisbon. “I have been educated to help others, serve others. [It is] a moral obligation.” But he balances his high-mindedness with a “brute competitiveness” inherited from his father, a champion table-tennis player. Tennis has always loomed large in Horta-Osório’s life. A measure of his determination is that when he broke his wrist at 30 and was told he’d never play again, “he promptly taught himself to play left-handed”, says the London Evening Standard. 

Horta-Osório enjoyed a professional education at INSEAD and Harvard Business School and took his first job at Citibank Portugal, says The Guardian, later joining Goldman Sachs. Arriving at Santander in 1993, he was rapidly promoted by the bank’s revered chair, Emilio Botín, running the Spanish bank’s Brazilian arm before being parachuted into the UK in 2006 to unite a series of building societies under the Santander banner. 

In the years that followed, Horta-Osório “became a pillar of the British establishment as few foreign bankers have”, says the FT. Granted a plum role at the Bank of England, he’s a regular tennis player at that “sporting icon of the ruling class”, Queen’s Club in Kensington, and chair of the Wallace Collection of fine art. He’s even achieved the distinction of having his private life raked over by the tabloids. True, he didn’t endear himself to fellow bank bosses when he “broke ranks” over PPI mis-selling and compensation (thereby saddling Lloyds with a £22bn bill); and the bank he bequeaths is considered “dowdy” by some. But at least Britain’s largest high-street bank “looks safe and well-run”.

A new broom at Credit Suisse

No wonder the bankers of Zurich can’t wait to hire him, says The Times. After some of the most turbulent years in its history, Horta-Osório is set to become the first ever Credit Suisse chairman from outside the Swiss establishment. When appointed in December, the bank was reeling from an extraordinary row over a corporate spying scandal and allegations of racism. Since then, it’s been clobbered reputationally and financially by embroilment in the Greensill and Archegos scandals. Doubtless, Horta-Osório will “find a way to embed himself in Swiss society” as effectively as he has in Britain – and he insists he feels none of the dread that plagued him a decade ago. But according to an ex-Credit Suisser, he needs to brace himself. “This is like nothing he’s ever dealt with before. Lloyds was easy by contrast.” 

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