The End of the Barclays Legacy in Africa


News broke last week that Barclays is preparing to sell off its once-prized African operations. Ben Hines reflects on his experience working in Barclays Africa and raises the issue of a bank’s wider responsibilities when conflicts arise between shareholder returns and the values on which it was founded.

Back in the Noughties I had the honour and privilege of serving with Barclays Africa, first based in the UK and then in Africa itself. I was part of what was perhaps the highest performing team I have had the privilege of working in, under the excellent leadership of Dominic Bruynseels. It was our job to transform a rather disorganised and British expat colonial-style bank to the leading bank on the continent with a new brand, offering state of the art products, services and client experiences. For the colleagues I am still in touch with today, we often comment that it was perhaps the best job we ever did – well, second best to what I do now!

This was largely due to the excitement of serving so many different African cultures, the joy of working with the people there and their desire to adopt change, and that we operated in a relatively autonomous part of the Barclays Group which allowed us to achieve a lot and quickly too. Perhaps the biggest reason though was that we knew we were making a positive difference to the economies we were in. We were simply doing what banking should do at its core: helping facilitate and grow businesses. Sure, we were there to make money, but in the right way. We were proud to be supporting the development of some of the world’s poorest countries.

The news this week that Barclays will be selling its’ majority stake in its’ African business after a century of banking there is to me at least, very sad. The commercial reasons are due to new regulations and capital requirements which mean that it is effectively an inefficient use of shareholders money to operate in Africa. As well as their stated need to simply Barclays’ global operations. Instead it is becoming a “transatlantic bank”.

In the work that I now do we offer our delegates the opportunity of  working with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and experiencing the power of music as a metaphor for business. Recently at one of our programmes we were working with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. One of the violinists shared that her violin was older than the Symphony itself – by about 100 years. The participants were flabbergasted to realise that this violin was being played before Beethoven learned the piano!

What was incredible about the musician herself is that she was fully aware that although this violin belongs to her, she is also simply a custodian of this instrument. The violin has had a future lasting centuries, and will continue to do so, as it is passed down to the next generation of professional violinists. There is a respect for the instrument, where it has been and where it is going. So too for the orchestra itself. The players are custodians for the brand and it will supersede them.

When it comes to Barclays Africa where does short-term shareholder value fit with Barclays’ founding principles, built on its’ strong Quaker past? Where does the responsibility lie with today’s leaders to lead for the future whilst respecting the past, its’ core values and building on it? 

Barclays and other Banks have had a torrid time in the last 6 years or so (largely of their own making and a move away from many of the core values these banks were originally founded on). Now Barclays are pulling out of a very valuable franchise to them – accounting for 20% of their profit last year – for “shareholder value”. This puts into question for me at least, why it can’t just do the right thing, having largely successfully done so over the past 100 years? Selling off its’ African operation will wipe away its’ legacy there for the sake of shareholder return. Which is the greater good?