Article written around 2005, interview by Georgina Noakes
REX Harrington started his career in banking forty years ago at the Bank of England, having already completed a degree in economics at Oxford University and spent his national service as an officer in the RAF near Stratford Upon Avon. He is the former director of shipping at The Royal Bank of Scotland, where he was responsible for building up its heavyweight shipping portfolio.
Rex retired from RBS in 1998, but he is retained as the bank’s adviser and is also a director of a number of companies, including Royal Olympic Cruise Line, and of the Liberian International Shipping and Corporate Registry (LISCR). He also acted as an adviser to the Coulouthros group of companies during its recent, well-publicised financial difficulties.
Rex had thought that retirement might usher in a quieter life at his home overlooking Wandsworth Common in south London. But he was wrong. Hardly surprising, really, since he is a man who describes himself as a “devoted workaholic”.
Rex is a social animal. He is well-known on the cocktail party circuit, and his natural bonhomie has been appreciated over the years by his clients and his many contacts in the worldwide shipping community. Many times he has acted as a conduit, linking together people of like mind and, once, even introducing two well-known Greek shipowners to each other while disembarking from an aeroplane.
“My philosophy has always been to know as much about my clients’ business as they know themselves,” explains Rex. “It also goes beyond purely business to knowing their families and being in touch on a regular basis, not just in meetings but by socialising as well”.
Building long-term relationships with people has always held the most interest for Rex. Indeed, it was this that led him to leave the civil service environment of the Bank of England after twelve years. “I was keen for customer contact,” he says. “While the Bank of England gave me a good foundation, it was commercial banking - and the people involved - that drew me, after a short spell at Barings, to what was Williams & Glyn’s bank, in 1973.”
In 1984 the Royal Bank of Scotland took over Williams & Glyn’s and, in so doing, inherited the St Mary Axe branch next to the Baltic Exchange, which had been serving shipping clients since the turn of the century. “I was meant to be doing corporate banking,” Rex explains, “but I got sidelined into shipping, which appeared sexy and exciting by comparison.” His enthusiasm and aptitude were responsible for him being put in charge of the expansion of the bank’s Scandinavian shipping portfolio, at a time when Scandinavian business was heavily dominated by German and US banks. Not one to be easily deterred, Rex diverted his attentions to the US, the Greek market in London and, of course, to Greece itself. Greece was to represent sixty per cent of RBS’s shipping portfolio by the time Rex retired.
“In actual fact,” says Rex, “I inherited relationships with Greek families that went back three or four generations with what was originally Williams Deacons at St Mary Axe.” At the heart of these relationships lay what is now popularly known as ‘relationship banking’.
“It was my job to know as much about their businesses as they knew themselves, and to build on long-term relationships with owners and shipping companies,” says Rex. “It was very different to transactional banking. It wasn’t a case of companies simply going for the cheapest quote. It also involved sticking with companies through lean times, like the early eighties when they were losing money because of poor freight rates.”
Owning ships seems to run in the veins of every Greek. “If you don’t have ships you are nothing,” says Rex. “It’s like British aristocrats and their need to own land.” Rex was perceived as somebody who had absorbed a wealth of information about the different shipowners he had worked with, many of whom, surprisingly enough, didn’t know each other. So he inevitably became a natural conduit between Greek owners. “There is no typical Greek shipowner. Each one is different,” says Rex.
“The Greeks are a proud, ancient civilisation - an island race. They had to go to sea as shipowners and traders. They are dynamic. They have emigrated around the globe in pursuit of their aims. Every commercial city in the world has a thriving Greek population, with real drive and tenacity.”
Other nationalities can find the Greeks difficult to deal with. Not Rex. “You have to accept that the Anglo Saxon and the Greek perspectives are very different to one another,” he explains. “It is in the Greek nature to leave things until the last minute. And this, of course, infuriates an orderly Anglo Saxon mind.”
Now that a new generation of bankers has taken over his shipping portfolio at RBS, what does the future hold for Rex?
“Well, I act as a consultant to the bank for one day a week, and I am rather enjoying life,” he says. “I have a second career, a second wave if you like.” It seems to be a pleasant surprise to Rex.
“I am a non-executive director or adviser to a number of shipping companies,” he explains. “Once you know their business it is important to chivvy up the executive directors to do what they should be doing without getting too involved in day-to-day operations. I also assist with formulating business or strategic plans.”
Rex had not quite envisaged the need to work until the early hours of the morning and at weekends once he had retired, but this became the norm during his recent stint with Coulouthros. “I enjoyed the trouble-shooting role,” he says, and it is evident that it settles well on his shoulders. He is the archetypal elder statesman of the sort the shipping industry occasionally produces.
Rex is also working with Yoram Cohen at the Liberian Registry. He is, he says, using his connections to market the register, looking at its corporate organisation and financial controls, and taking a strategic view of where the registry is going, at the new products it is developing, and at pricing and other aspects of the operation. “I like the analytical, big-picture view of things,” admits Rex.
Rex says, “I know what’s going on in the shipping industry, and I like to juggle several projects at once and to have my fingers in several pies.” He recently joined the board of Eurofin International, a shipping finance consultancy based in the Kings Road, central London, with an office - appropriately for Rex - in Greece. Not surprisingly, the clientele are mostly Greek. Rex expects to travel, acting as an adviser in sourcing finance and trouble shooting difficult situations.
So, no plans to take it easy, then. One senses that Rex would soon become restless without a project.
In Camera would not be complete without a word about lawyers. “There are two sorts of lawyers,” says Rex. “The ‘No you can’t’ sort and the ‘This is difficult, but the way around the problem is this ...’ sort. The latter are what I call one hundred per cent lawyers. The commercially astute lawyer who applies common sense to arrive at a solution is the lawyer you want to take on. Someone who doesn’t want to be told what to do, who will point out the risks then let you decide, is the kind of lawyer I like to work with.
“You want a lawyer who will find a solution. One who is busy but always appears calm and unrushed, ready to give you all the time in the world. You shouldn’t ever get the feeling that your lawyer is thinking about anything other than your problem.”
This goes back to relationship management. “At the heart of all this,” says Rex, “is listening - being prepared to work long hours without clock-watching.” A genuine love of socialising also helps.
Rex grew up in Wandsworth and, by moving back there, has returned to his roots. He lives with his wife Susan, who handles corporate public relations for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. He is regularly visited by his three children, each of whom has followed in his footsteps in one way or another. There are two sons - one a banker, the other a shipbroker at Gibson’s. And there is a daughter, who is a hedge fund manager.
Having devoted himself to work throughout his career, what are Rex’s other pleasures in life? “Travel, good food and wine and walking in Richmond Park,” he smiles. Better than working for a living. But whisper that around Rex.