As a long-time student of China, John Bond knows his Chinese proverbs. They give him perspective on his life and career, which was dominated by his 45 years at Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known as HSBC, at times the world’s largest bank. “Today, you’re a rooster. Tomorrow, a feather duster” is one of them.
Last year, when he resigned as the chairman of mining giant Xstrata in the face of an investor rebellion that gave him a walk-in role in Britain’s “shareholder spring,” the wizened old rooster came close to feather duster status. It was a rather unpleasant way to wind down an illustrious career that had made him one of the best-known executives in Britain and one of the few Westerners on a first-name basis with many of the premiers, finance ministers and banking regulators in Asia and dozens of other countries in HSBC’s global empire.
“Unquestionably, it was a mistake to put in the retention bonuses without performance conditions,” he says, referring to the infamous attempted vote that linked shareholders’ approval for Xstrata’s merger with Glencore to the lavish payouts to Xstrata’s executive team.
Sir John Reginald Hartnell Bond – he was knighted for services to banking in 1999 – and I are plunked in the living room of his surprisingly modest house in South Kensington, London. Checking the address before I arrive, and knowing that Mr. Bond had been the chairman or CEO of three of the biggest companies on the London stock market – HSBC, Vodafone, Xstrata –and a director of other biggies, including Ford, I had expected a great pile of a mansion. Instead, I found myself in a rather pokey garden flat that had begun life a few decades earlier as a car garage. “I spend relatively little time in this country,” he says by way of explanation for the small digs. Indeed, he is in town for a mere 48 hours before starting an Austrian ski holiday and heading back to Vero Beach, Fla., where he and his wife Elizabeth (Liz) spend several months a year. Hong Kong, the home of their three children and the city that defined his career, occupies the rest of his calendar.
It is 10 in the morning. Mr. Bond and I face one another on comfy white sofas. Coffee is made and, incredibly generous with his time, he explains that our chat will continue over lunch at Blakes Hotel around the corner. The coffee table is decorated with a pot of charlatan red roses and stacks of hardbacks, among them a picture book of Arabian horses and Canadian author Wade Davis’s Into The Silence, the award-winning account of George Mallory’s doomed attempts to scale Everest. The room is decorated with family photos, including more than a few of daughter Annabelle, the glamorous socialite and adventurer who was careful not to forget her lipstick when she reached the top of Everest in 2004.
Mr. Bond is 72, compact and seems in robust good health. He wears jeans, a black sweater and bright red socks that keep diverting my attention from his eyes. He surprises me again with his self-deprecating humour. “I haven’t been imbued with copious self-confidence and haven’t in any point in my life,” he says. “I look back and think I was just an ordinary bloke who got lucky.”
Born in 1941 in Oxford, he is the son of a merchant marine sailor and the nephew of four Second World War bomber airmen (all of whom survived). He failed his University of Oxford entrance exams but, at age 18, won a scholarship for a year of schooling in California. “I got on the plane, the first plane ride of my life. The stewardess went by and I said ‘ma’am, can you tell me where my parachute is,’ and she said, ‘honey, there aren’t any,’” he says, laughing.