Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Mike Soden - enjoying a cold dish!

The resignation of Mike Soden as Bank of Ireland (BOI) Group Chief executive was a surprise announcement on Saturday 29th May 2004. The market gave its judgement on Monday 31st May, the next working day, when BOI shares rose 4%.

Revenge, they say, is a dish best eaten cold and, almost 5 years later, Mike Soden is enjoying that dish and a new lease of life on RTE and other local media, where he is calling for the heads of the current bank CEOs and an amalgamation of AIB & BOI. Now where have I heard that proposal before?

Mike Soden succeeded Maurice Keane as BOI CEO in Feb 2002. Soden was an outsider, brought in from National Australia Bank, where he was Executive General Manager of Global Business and Personal Financial Services based in Melbourne, specifically to do the “transformational deal” which would take BOI from being a big fish in a very small pond in Ireland into a serious player on the European banking stage. It was felt that the internal contenders for the top job were all BOI “lifers” and lacked the experience, and possibly the imagination, to spot and execute such an opportunity.

Soden’s first big idea was to merge BOI and AIB to create a “national champion” with sufficient scale to ward off predators and expand geographically. This champion would have sufficient capacity to stage takeovers of mid-sized local players in other countries.

This “big idea” fell at the first hurdles – AIB weren’t remotely interested and the competition implications of combining the two largest players, by some margin, in a relatively small market like Ireland were overwhelmingly negative. However, Soden persisted with the promulgation of this idea long past the point where it was dead in the water, showing a distinct lack of business and political judgement. This didn’t endear him to the analysts community or, indeed, to his board of directors and senior executive colleagues. His preoccupation with this proposal, and obvious lack of cop on when it was clearly a non-runner, became something of an annoyance and embarrassment to his BOI colleagues.

Soden’s next big idea was to take over the troubled Abbey National in the UK – an October 2002 proposal which was badly received by the markets and the BOI share price fell like a stone. That deal was rejected by Abbey National and, in due course, it fell through, causing the BOI share price to rise.

In 2003 BOI signed a 10-year deal with the British Post Office (BPO) to provide financial services across its network of post offices. This deal was largely sealed on the back of the relationship built up with First Direct, a BOI subsidiary which has provided all the BPOs foreign exchange services since the mid-90s (and had grown to be the largest provider of FX services in UK).

Despite his clear remit to do “the transformational deal”, the BPO was the nearest Soden ever got to it – and, 6 years on, it’s still relatively small beer in the overall scheme of things. Long before the end of 2003, Soden had “lost the dressing-room” of his executive management team and was failing to convince the analyst community that he had any vision for BOI worth listening to.

So when, in May 2004, Mike Soden’s visit to an escort agency web-site was leaked by disgruntled IT staff to a newspaper, the Court (board of directors) was happy enough to have the opportunity to wave him goodbye. The nature of the transgression was embarrassing to be sure, but if they had felt he was worth saving they could have done so. Instead, it was made clear to him that he was going and a generous severance package would grease his exit.

Now he’s back – at least in the media. And what’s he calling for? The amalgamation of AIB & BOI. And the heads of the CEOs of the banks.

I heard him on Pat Kenny today – and he offered the view that the new bank heads should not come from the next tier of management within those banks – anyone who is tainted with the current policy/strategy failures.

Now Soden may well be right on this “firing & succession” point, but it’s hard to imagine that he’s not getting pleasure from shafting some of the people he feels shafted him.

But I will offer one piece of advice – don’t let Mike Soden himself anywhere near the helm of an Irish bank.

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