Robin Phillips has quietly navigated a slew of restructurings at HSBC’s investment bank over the past 14 years and come out on top, giving him a reputation that led one former colleague to dub him “the great survivor”.
But while his understated management approach has enabled him to climb the corporate ladder, he has come under fire in recent weeks over his stewardship of HSBC’s global banking division by a group, who claim to work for the bank, calling for his departure.
Phillips grew up in Surrey, later graduating from Oxford University, where he played golf for the university. His elder brother Anthony co-founded rock group Genesis and Phillips ended up playing oboe on his brother’s first solo album, The Geese & The Ghost, released in 1977. It featured lutes, tympani and a guest appearance from Phil Collins, who joined Genesis after Anthony left.
After entering banking, Phillips worked for UBS Warburg and Citigroup, making his name carrying out airport privatisations and doing deals in Mexico, Australia, Argentina and Thailand.
In 2004, he was hired by HSBC investment banking co-head John Studzinski, a former Morgan Stanley banker who was charged with revamping HSBC’s investment bank alongside future chief executive Stuart Gulliver. In 2006, Phillips received one of his first significant promotions at HSBC, becoming co-head of global banking, a role he has held in one form or another since then.
The revamp did not pan out as management had hoped. Later that year, “Studs” quit for private equity giant Blackstone Group and a number of his senior hires followed him out the door. But not Phillips.
Over the next decade, Phillips, who has four children, held on to his global banking role while a number of co-heads came and went. He worked in Hong Kong and London, overseeing a number of restructurings and taking on further roles including group general manager; head of global banking and markets for Asia Pacific; and head of client coverage.
One former colleague said: “There have been numerous management changes at HSBC over the past 10 years and he has come out of all of them with a promotion. Robin is just a steady pair of hands, which is what is needed at HSBC. He doesn’t micro manage, and tends to leave you alone as long as you’re making money.”
Other insiders paint a less favourable picture, saying that Phillips lacks the dynamism necessary in a senior leader. One former colleague described him as “lightweight”.
In 2016, HSBC again tried to reboot its investment bank by hiring Goldman Sachs banker Matthew Westerman to work alongside Phillips as co-head of global banking. Insiders say that Westerman’s hard-charging and forthright style was in sharp contrast to Phillips’ more understated tone, which was more in keeping with HSBC’s conservative culture. Westerman left the bank in 2017 after reports of a culture clash, leaving Phillips as the sole head of the group.