Fall from grace: Jes Staley
Fall from grace: Jes Staley © Bloomberg

It is barely a month since Jes Staley, Barclays’ chief executive, had five 7ft tall acetate tombstones removed from the lobby of the bank’s Canary Wharf headquarters. The plaques, emblazoned with the words respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship, were designed by Mr Staley’s predecessor as reminders of the bank’s behavioural priorities. They had been understandably ridiculed by staff and visitors alike as an unsophisticated and unconvincing PR stunt.

But in light of this week’s news, their removal looks ironically prophetic. On Tuesday Mr Staley, 60, was publicly reprimanded by Barclays’ board, and told he would suffer a “very significant” pay cut after breaching rules designed to protect whistleblowers who alert banks to problems. Mr Staley’s allies say he had spent his 16 months in charge trying to turn values such as respect and integrity from PR into practice. But after seeking to discover the identity of an anonymous letter writer who had highlighted the personal problems of a new hire, Mr Staley can hardly claim to embody those watchwords now.

It is a sudden fall from grace. After taking over as Barclays’ CEO in late 2015, Mr Staley had quickly built a loyal following within the bank, having taken bold decisions on strategy (exiting Africa and recommitting to investment banking) and boosting morale. Senior colleagues have rallied round him this week. One New York executive said Mr Staley had “really embraced [Barclays] people since he got here . . . and people have embraced him in a way I haven’t seen before”. Mr Staley’s comradely style and clear strategic choices helped win over doubters both inside and outside the bank.

Mr Staley is more enlightened than your textbook Wall Street banker. While he has long boasted the predictable trappings — the Park Avenue apartment, the 90-foot yacht — he is an ardent Democrat and has pushed a diversity-at-work agenda, inspired by his brother Peter, a prominent gay rights campaigner.

After 34 years at JPMorgan, mainly in equities and asset management, he left for hedge fund Blue Mountain in 2013, having realised he would not be succeeding longtime chief executive Jamie Dimon any time soon. He had been shortlisted for the top job at Barclays a year earlier, but missed out to insider Antony Jenkins and his acetate plaques.

Relations with JPMorgan have been strained from the start of Mr Staley’s tenure at Barclays in late 2015. After he made a string of senior hires, Mr Dimon called Barclays chairman John McFarlane last autumn to call a halt to the poaching.

Even before this week’s news, some doubts had persisted about Mr Staley’s experience. Despite his three decades at JPMorgan, he had spent minimal time in big retail or investment banking roles and had been most effective at the US bank when running its asset management unit, a business Barclays no longer has. He had also not worked in the UK, or as a chief executive. People close to the bank admit the latest episode illustrates his inexperience and naivety in crucial areas.

The affair also showed Mr Staley at his most emotional, they say. His main concern had been to protect his friend Tim Main, a former JPMorgan colleague, who he had hired into Barclays last summer. Mr Main had been through personal issues — details of which had been disclosed to Barclays when he was hired, but which were highlighted in graphic language to the board by the mystery whistleblower.

Though the Barclays board and compliance department had decided the letters constituted whistleblowing, entailing strict regulatory oversight, Mr Staley saw them as vindictive troublemaking. One person close to the situation said Mr Staley had become convinced that a former colleague from JPMorgan was orchestrating a hate campaign.

In his email to staff this week, Mr Staley wrote: “I got too personally involved in this matter . . . This was a mistake on my part and I apologise for it.” Regulators have yet to say whether that apology will suffice and whether they will allow Mr Staley to continue in his job. If they do, even his fans say he would do well to forget the JPMorgan feud, suppress his emotional side, and get back to the task of managing Barclays.

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