Former HSBC chairman Lord Sandberg traversed crucial years of change in China and Hong Kong

Memorial event to be held on September 6 to pay last respects to Michael Sandberg, who steered the bank into the global top five from 1977 to 1986

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 5:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 6:33pm

Former HSBC chairman Michael Sandberg was in charge of the bank at a crucial time – when mainland China was opening up and as Sino-British talks on Hong Kong’s future were under way.

Sandberg died in his London home on July 2 at the age of 90. A memorial event will be held for him at the Hong Kong Club on September 6. It is being organised by his son, Michael Sandberg Junior.

“I do not want a fancy ceremony. As we have already held the funeral for my father in the UK, I would like to hold a memorial here in Hong Kong to allow friends and former colleagues who were not able to attend the funeral to show their last respects to my father,” Sandberg said.

“My father loved Hong Kong and had many friends among the local Chinese and expatriate communities, many of whom went on to become successful.

“These friendships endured long after he retired and left Hong Kong. He treated his customers and his colleagues as partners. They all worked together as a team to further their common goals, which also resulted in the successful development of the economy and business in Hong Kong.”

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As chairman of HSBC from 1977 to 1986, Sandberg helped finance the aspirations of many local business leaders. Among them, Li Ka-shing worked with Sandberg in his bid to purchase Hutchison, which became his flagship CK Hutchison Holdings.

Shipping magnate Pao Yue-kong and Hui Sai-fun, whose family owns some of the best office space in Central, also had a close relationship with Sandberg.

In a forward-thinking move that underscored Sandberg’s emphasis on board diversity and the importance of local knowledge, he lobbied to have Hui, Li and Pao join the bank’s board of directors.

Under Sandberg’s watch, Lydia Dunn, executive director of John Swire and Sons, was also appointed to the board, becoming its first female member.

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In a fortuitous development, China initiated economic reforms in 1978, only a year after Sandberg became chairman of HSBC.

Sandberg was among the first batch of bankers to acknowledge the importance of the changes taking place across the border, establishing a team to focus on exploring opportunities there.

He also headed the bank amid negotiations in the early 1980s between Britain and China over Hong Kong’s future.

In a sign of confidence in Hong Kong’s future, Sandberg pushed for the construction of HSBC’s headquarters in Central and invited dignitaries to attend the opening ceremony. The building was completed in November 1985.

He also suggested the government peg the Hong Kong currency to the US dollar at 7.8, not 8 as originally envisaged by the government ahead of the introduction of the currency board in October 1983. The Hong Kong dollar was under severe selling pressure at the time amid dwindling confidence in the city’s future.

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“I thought it over for a time and ... in my opinion, HK$8 sounded a bit artificial. I suggested pegging it at HK$7.80 or HK$7.90 to make it look as if we had carefully worked it out,” Sandberg wrote in his 2012 autobiography Hurrahs and Hammerblows.

Sandberg also led HSBC’s international expansion, overseeing the purchase of Marine Midland Bank in the United States in 1980 as well as aggressive expansion in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe.

When Sandberg became chairman in 1977, HSBC ranked 80th in the world banking league tables. When he retired in December 1986, the bank ranked in the top five.

“As far as subsidiaries are concerned, it has always been HSBC’s philosophy to help them feel they are partners rather than mere subsidiaries. Otherwise, it would be easy for them to feel victims of a rapacious big brother,” he wrote in his autobiography.

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After retirement from HSBC in 1986 he split his time between France and Britain, yet frequently visited Hong Kong where he remained on the boards of several companies.

Sandberg scaled back travel in the early 2000s, citing health problems.

He remained a passionate cricket fan, frequently attending matches to soak up the atmosphere.

Sandberg Junior remembers his father not as a banker but a gentle man who loved his wife, four children and six grandchildren.

“My father was a very happy, smiling man who delighted in being with his family. My siblings waited for him to get back from the office so we could all squeeze up on the sofa and watch TV together,” he said.

In his autobiography Sandberg reflected on his life: “I cannot know what the future holds, but I am lucky enough to have had a wonderfully enjoyable life, and as I write this at home, looking out at my peaceful garden, I give silent thanks.”