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Outgoing HSBC CEO Butterfield reflects on 40-year banking career

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When Philip Butterfield was a youngster growing up in Middletown, he never envisioned that his working environment would one day be a sixth floor corner office on Front Street.

But thanks to a lot of hard work and dedication, that is how life has turned out for the chief executive officer of HSBC Bermuda. The magnificent view over Hamilton harbour from that corner office is something Mr Butterfield admits he will greatly miss after he retires from the job next month.

On May 10, Mr Butterfield will spend his last day as CEO before he retires and hands over the reins to Deputy CEO Richard Moseley. The veteran of 40 years in the banking industry will remain with the organisation as chairman.

In an interview with

The Royal Gazette, he reflected on the path that led him to the helm of the Island's largest financial services firm and looked back on a career that surpassed his own expectations. He has spent the past eight years as CEO, having been appointed to the role when global bank HSBC acquired the Bank of Bermuda in 2004. He had previously been chief operating officer of the Bank of Bermuda.

Mr Butterfield had returned home to work in Bermuda, after 28 years working for Citibank in New York, for much of that time as chief of staff.

“It doesn't feel like 40 years,” he said. “It's never felt like a burden. I've been privileged to do something I truly enjoy.

“In my childhood, I never had a vision that I would be sitting here. What I have learned is that boundaries are gateposts and not barriers.”

There was no secret to his success, he said. It was all about hard work, coupled with a willingness to accept challenges and to do what was necessary to meet those challenges.

The tools to climb the corporate ladder were derived from his upbringing and his education, he said. He first attended Happy Valley School, where he was taught by Winifred Seaton, whom he respectfully described as a “disciplinarian”. Then he went to Central School (now known as Victor Scott). He recalled having extra tuition on Saturdays at the Mount Hill home of Victor Scott, the principal after whom the school went on to be named, and his wife Edna Mae Scott, as he put in the time to pass the 11-plus exam.

The effort was rewarded in 1959, when he became the first person in his family to earn a Bermuda Government high school scholarship, which earned him a place at Berkeley Institute. At Berkeley, he recalled the “extremely positive influences” that have served him well throughout his life, citing his former physics teacher Mansfield Brock and the principal FS Furbert, among others.

His first taste of banking came when he went to work as a teller for the Bank of NT Butterfield, now a major competitor of the bank he leads. After doing that for a year and a half, he went off to study at New York University, where he continued his post-graduate studies at business school.

Then it was time to enter the world of work. Banking was something that appealed to Mr Butterfield, but to land a job at one of the big New York banks, he had to go through a rigorous recruiting process. One of his initial interviews, with Citi head of recruiting Sam Daume, particularly interested him. “He was so vibrant and full of life and we chatted for 45 minutes,” Mr Butterfield recalled. The second interview was more of a grilling, a two-on-one affair.

Mr Butterfield said he soon worked out what was going on. “The whole purpose was that the second guy would challenge everything you said,” he said. “So I started challenging both of them.

“Before the third interview, Sam asked me to come to his office. I asked him, 'how did I mess up?' He said, 'You didn't, we want to offer you a job. We've not seen anyone take over a two-on-one interview like you did'.”

He started work with Citi on June 10, 1972 and worked for the bank in New York for what he described as “28 great years”.

In 2000, he returned to the Island to work for the Bank of Bermuda. Having returned every summer at Cup Match, he had kept up with the changes the Island had gone through. But this would be the first he had ever worked full time in Bermuda, a new experience.

“The pace of work was very different from New York, where there was a shark in every corner,” he said. “You had to be at your best every day. Getting used to the different pace was a challenge.”

Four years later, when HSBC acquired the bank, Mr Butterfield became CEO and in the process became the first black person to lead a financial services organisation on the Island. He has always been keen to play down the significance of that, but has come to appreciate what it means to many in the community.

“One day a man stopped me at the Airport when I was flying back to our home in Connecticut,” he recalled. “He said, 'I want to shake your hand, because in my lifetime I never expected to see a man of colour take your position in Bermuda'.

“That was a moment when I was able to connect all the dots and understand the impact I could have on an individual and the responsibilities that come as a result of having that position.

“I never envisioned myself in this position. Life has come full circle.”

Mr Butterfield is passionate in his belief that education is the passport to a better life. He has practised his beliefs through serving as chairman of the Education Board and also in maximising opportunities for HSBC Bermuda staff to learn and build their skill sets.

“One of the things I'm most proud of is our accreditation programme,” Mr Butterfield said. “Eighty-three percent of the staff are engaged in some form of accreditation programme. That's an extraordinary accomplishment.”

He recommends that Bermudians looking to progress in financial services should try to spend some time overseas to build up their experience, the kind of opportunity that HSBC's global network can offer. He said the bank had 29 Bermudians who had spent between three months and two years working elsewhere in the HSBC network, people who had come back equipped to take on added responsibilities.

The most important quality for a leader is authenticity, according to Mr Butterfield, who said that the way a leader behaves should be aligned with their beliefs. Decisiveness is also key and he believes that humour also plays a role in fostering good relations and togetherness within an organisation.

Banking has progressed markedly since Mr Butterfield started out in the business. Many transactions that used to require a visit to the bank and a conversation with a member of staff can now be performed on a computer. Products and personal experience remained key differentiators between banks, he said, but it is the contact between customer and a human being at the bank that solidifies the relationship.

“It's important that we don't forget that,” Mr Butterfield said. “No matter how well the systems and technology are delivered, it doesn't mean much if people can't identify with the organisation.”

As he prepares to retire, 65-year-old Mr Butterfield expects to be spending more time with his family, particularly his wife of 41 years Roz, and his daughters Charlene and Vernee. But he will keep busy, not only as chairman of the bank. He is also chairman of the Bermuda Hospitals Charitable Trust, a member of the Steering Committee for Bermuda First, president of Bermuda Health Foundation, chairman of the Advisory Committee for the Bermuda Environmental Alliance, chairman of the Victor Scott School Alumni Association, a board member of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and a trustee of the American Classical Orchestra, a New York-based period instrument orchestra.

He's also fond of a spot of golf, often with his well-known brothers, former Premier Ewart Brown and Chief Fire Officer Vincent Hollinsid. “I'm looking forward to spending some time on improving my golf game, because I'm tired of paying money to my brothers,” he said.

Preparing for retirement: Outgoing HSBC Bermuda CEO Philip Butterfield (Photo by Mark Tatem)
Preparing for retirement: Outgoing HSBC Bermuda CEO Philip Butterfield (Photo by Mark Tatem)
Preparing for retirement: Outgoing HSBC Bermuda CEO Philip Butterfield (Photo by Mark Tatem)
Preparing for retirement: Outgoing HSBC Bermuda CEO Philip Butterfield (Photo by Mark Tatem)
Outgoing HSBC Bermuda CEO Phil Butterfield (Photo by Mark Tatem)

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Published April 24, 2012 at 9:00 am (Updated April 24, 2012 at 9:24 am)

Outgoing HSBC CEO Butterfield reflects on 40-year banking career

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