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Banking on Reality

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Thinkers50 is a small business. There are the two founders — us — and a team of people around the world we work with. Our web designer lives in Canada. Our organizing genius is in New Hampshire. The event organizers working on Thinkers50 2017 are Danish. Our Thinkers50 trophies are designed in Singapore. Our film crew is led by an American living in London.

And our partners and customers are also totally global — Haier from China, the City of Odense from Denmark, Fujitsu from Japan, the Brightline Initiative from the US.

So far, so normal. In the global business age, such businesses are hardly a surprise.

And yet they are a surprise to our bank, HSBC. It is under pressure to come down hard on money laundering and so it calls in small businesses like Thinkers50 to explain ourselves.

In June one of us dutifully attended a meeting with an HSBC manager. He wanted to know how much of our future income would come from the Middle East, the US and so on. We don’t know, we said. The thing with the future is that it is unknowable. If a Thai company wants to employ us we would consider what they want us to do and how much they are prepared to pay. That’s how business works.

Our answers weren’t the right ones.

Last week HSBC closed our business account. There were no emails or phone calls warning us of this. The final statement went to a previous address we had told them had changed by post and in person. We had received a ‘Welcome to HSBC’ letter during the Summer but nothing after. As we had been HSBC customers for the best part of twenty years and our Thinkers50 account had been opened over a year before we didn’t pay it any attention.

The account had a six figure sum in it. We are organizing an event in November and people have been buying tickets. The money goes into our bank account. Now we are starting to pay our suppliers.

The money is now in limbo. During the last week we have had 8 separate conversations with HSBC employees. We have tweeted. We have emailed. And still a major international bank is preventing us accessing our money.

We are not alone. In recent weeks The Guardian, The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail have all featured stories of how small businesses have had their accounts closed by HSBC. Clearly, these aren’t aberrations or mysterious outliers, but a pattern of behaviour, a strategy.

What can be concluded from this?

First, organizations which have moved from the traditional banking mantra of KYC — Know Your Customer — to FYC, are sooner or later going to be found out. Organizations, even huge global banking institutions, need customers to survive. Hundreds of small businesses are now anti-HSBC evangelists. They are spreading the word now: Don’t bank with HSBC.

Second, too many people in banks are doing the jobs of robots. The Deutsche Bank CEO observed this last week. HSBC, from our experience, is full of pleasantly powerless people who measure success by pointless form filling. Robots fill in forms, human beings exercise judgement. There is a complete absence of judgement in the day to day operations of many modern banks. Without judgement, they make the wrong calls about customers time and time again.

Third, above the powerless employees of HSBC is a vacuum of leadership. Amanda Murphy is the head of commercial banking for the company in the UK. She was quoted in an article urging discontented customers to contact the bank. We did and found no helpful way forward or explanation of their actions. So, we emailed Ms Murphy. The email was rejected for security reasons.

The heart of what is wrong can be found in Ms Murphys LinkedIn profile. “I am very proud to be leading the best team of bankers and financial services professionals in the United Kingdom to deliver the best bank to our customers,” she says. There is no sense of aspiring to be the best. No, simply stated, this is the best team. Hubris is not leadership.

The final point is perhaps the most disturbing: large global organizations can be completely dysfunctional and wreak economic havoc and yet still not be held to account. It was notable in our conversations with HSBC employees over the last week how slow they were to apologise. Most did not. Somehow it has become acceptable for global corporations to ride roughshod over customers, small businesses, even governments. They are beyond our reach.

That is what they think. Increasingly we anticipate that the business narrative of our times will be of corporate behemoths being brought back to reality. We hope so.

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