Helen Weir, the group finance director of Lloyds TSB, is in something of an
odd position. Alongside Jann Brown of Cairn Energy, she is one of the few female
finance directors in the FTSE 100.
Not that she is letting it bother her. Responding to the question that she
must have grown tired of answering since the loss of Alison Reed and Margaret
Ewing from FTSE100 FD jobs, she says: ‘I don’t think about it. It’s not
something that crosses my mind.’
Every institution she has been a part of has been male dominated, she says,
so it’s no different now. And she thinks that finance is actually the kind of
industry where women have the opportunity to do particularly well.
‘There are more women in senior positions in finance where you have a
professional qualification than in other areas. I think a qualification is
helpful to women in terms of progressing their careers.’
Weir is brisk, purposeful, and straight to the point. She does, she says,
deliberately avoid ambiguity. ‘Any decision is better than no decision. If you
can remove ambiguity and give people clarity, that’s very important.’
Weir arrived at Lloyds TSB in 2004 and, while the company was not in a
terrible state, since her arrival there has been a definite change in direction.
‘In 2003 we had come from a period of little or no growth, and part of the
plan was to return the business to growth, to get the momentum back.’
Momentum is a key word for Weir and the new management and, while City
analysts say there is still some way to go, green shoots are thought to be
Weir has an impressive ‘management’ CV to bolster her financial credentials.
Having joined Unilever in the 1980s as a management trainee, she did an MBA at
Stanford before working at management consultants McKinsey.
Her more recent career as a public company FD started when she left McKinsey
to head up B&Q’s finance function. She became group FD of Kingfisher in
2000, before moving to Lloyds TSB three years ago.
McKinsey, by all accounts, sounded like hard work. ‘When it was needed, yes.
Clients have high expectations. But I don’t think you find anyone at a senior
level who doesn’t work long hours on a pretty regular basis.’
She prefers, she says, working in a line role at Lloyds, where she can define
her hours and manage the timetable better.
‘You get to work on interesting things [at McKinsey].’ She specialised in
retail businesses, carrying out her first research project on Ratners, the
She wishes she had stayed longer at Unilever, where she got experience across
a range of different business lines alongside around ten other trainees. ‘There
was more I could have learnt,’ she says, and her advice to others is to look out
for new experiences and people you can learn from.
Lloyds is an interesting business from the finance point of view. The burden
of regulation is one issue. Her counterpart at Barclays, Naguib Kheraj, recently
announced that he would be stepping down from his role there because he was fed
up with the compliance burden.
‘It’s a seemingly never-ending task,’ she says. Banks, like insurers, are
heavily regulated, unlike retailers. ‘I think it takes up a significantly
greater proportion of my time than it would have done my predecessor. I don’t
see that changing going forward.’
But unlike Kheraj, she takes the attitude that she just has to lump it. ‘It
makes the job less fun, and it doesn’t add to life’s great richnesses, but it’s
a fact of life.’
Perhaps being on the Accounting Standards Board has made her more sympathetic
to the role of regulators. The body has less to do now the IASB and FASB are the
pre-eminent standards bodies around the world, but it is still important.
‘One of the things I am talking about all the time is how we can influence
what’s happening on the international stage. I think in some ways international
regulators are less accountable than a domestic standards setter.’
HSBC’s finance issues have also been in the news recently, with a senior
official at the bank suggesting it might move offshore due to the UK’s declining
competitiveness on tax.
‘We are primarily UK-based. I am not sure where we would go to offshore,’
says Weir, implying that if Lloyds TSB were even thinking about similar moves,
the plans are not exactly well advanced.
But she adds: ‘We are one of the largest UK taxpayers and operate within the
rules set down by HM Revenue & Customs. We take our tax paying
responsibility seriously, but are not in the game of disadvantaging shareholders
by paying more tax than we are required to pay.’
Lloyds TSB is at an interesting juncture of its development. With a market
value of more than£30bn, it hovers around tenth position in the list of the UK’s
The bank is currently undertaking a review of its finance function. It is
broadly decentralised and Weir is pondering centralising various administrative
elements, employing shared service centres, centres of excellence and other
finance management tools.
‘One thing that breaks my heart is seeing really, really good people
downloading on to a spreadsheet and printing out,’ she says. So the idea is to
free people up to think, rather than to crunch numbers.
More broadly, banks are worrying about bad debts, with widespread fears
around changing attitudes to debt in the UK; they are fears Weir shares. ‘The
idea that it is OK to default on a contract you have written is worrying,’ she
‘When personal finance columnists write that, although students cannot
default on student loans, they can take out a regular loan from a bank, pay off
the student debt and then default on the bank, I think that’s quite a worrying
She adds that it is in no one’s interest. ‘If more and more people default,
credit becomes more expensive for everyone.’
As for the momentum situation, City analysts are convinced of one thing, that
fears over the dividend have now been settled.
‘The biggest debate in 2003 was would Lloyds cut the dividend. In 2006, it is
will they grow the dividend?’ one analyst says.
Investors particularly value Lloyds’ stock because it pays out a good income,
with a yield of 6%. Understandably, Weir does not want to comment on whether the
bank will increase the payout, but will say: ‘I don’t have a large war chest of
This year looks like being the year when the City finds out one way or
another how Weir and Eric Daniels, the chief executive, are doing in their
attempt to get Lloyds motoring again.
‘The bank has the potential to surprise on the upside,’ the analyst adds.
At 43, Weir is young to be in charge of the finances at Lloyds. Her
predecessor Sir Philip Hampton is now the chairman of Sainsbury, so it is fair
to conclude that, all being well, she has a bright and high-powered future ahead
She is quite close to government too, as she is a non-executive at the Royal
Mail, still owned by the government.
‘I love what I’m doing. There’s some unfinished business here, but I would
like to run a business at some stage. I would like the top job.’ It’s a
typically direct answer from an FD who knows what she wants, and where she is
For now however, there are still several pressing issues. The issue of audit
choice is one that is particularly interesting for the banks. A key aspect of
that debate has been the argument from the Big Four that, much as there are
issues around the number of firms at the top level, there is no way smaller
firms could carry out audits of oil companies, banks and insurance companies in
particular. The number of people required, and the global reach, is just beyond
That’s a view Weir agrees with. ‘I have never had an approach from a mid-tier
[firm],’she says, adding that that goes for her four years at Kingfisher as much
as it does for her time at Lloyds TSB.
Hundreds of people from PwC are employed on Lloyds’ audits at any one time,
she says. One would presume, however, there must be more activity now, with BDO
and others pushing for recognition from the big companies that their work is as
good as the Big Four’s.
‘It’s very hard to envisage a firm outside the Big Four providing the audit
resource and the responsiveness we require. Even the Big Four find it difficult
to find auditors of an appropriate calibre.
I don’t think the small or the mid-sized firms would have the depth.’