Return of the Mack: How Barclays chairman John McFarlane earned his reputation as "Mack the Knife"

Emma Haslett
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He may be known as "Mack the Knife" - but John McFarlane is taking on one of the toughest jobs in banking (Source: Barclays)
John McFarlane has barely been in situ three months as Barclays’ chairman, but this morning he claimed his first scalp: Antony “nicest guy in banking” Jenkins, the man appointed three years ago to bring out Barclays’ cuddly side, will step down at the end of next week.
Analysts and shareholders expressed their surprise at the move - while the bank’s shares might have dipped slightly since this time last year, it’s still outperforming the sector as a whole.
In hindsight, though, was it really such a shock? After all, McFarlane comes with a reputation of a fearless taker-of-scalps. In banking circles he’s known simply as “Mack the Knife”.
The 67-year-old former Aviva chairman may be a feng shui enthusiast who isn’t afraid to accompany the corporate choir on his guitar - but in the boardroom he’s known as a “straight shooter” with an eye on increasing shareholder returns, whatever the cost.
During his two years at Aviva, McFarlane famously promised to turn the company into a “leaner, more agile beast”, cutting thousands of jobs and selling dozens of businesses including its US arm for $1.8bn. By the time he left, just two of the 11 directors on the board when he started were still in place. Among those he’d done away with was Andrew Moss, the unloved chief executive.
As Mike van Dulken, head of research at Accendo Markets, points out: “His reputation precedes him”.
McFarlane’s tough side is said to come from a suspicion of businesses with multiple layers of management. In the 1980s, when he was still an executive at Citi, he was given the task of restructuring its London equities arm. The restructuring failed, Citi all but closed the unit - and McFarlane learned his lesson.
Still, the Barclays chairmanship has been described as the “toughest job in banking”, and someone as unflappable as McFarlane may be just what it needs.
“I think this is a move back towards the region [Barclays] was in when Bob Diamond was in place in 2012,” says Joshua Mahony, a market analyst at IG.
“[Jenkins] filled a mandate for a time - but today’s move is people at the top realising that frankly, there wasn’t enough emphasis on the investment bank.”

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