HSBC’s Sandra Stuart: from teller to titan

TURNING THE TIDE | Sandra Stuart, president and CEO of HSBC Canada, is one of the first women to lead a major bank in Canada

How Sandra Stuart rose through the ranks of HSBC Canada–and how she’s positioning the bank to compete with the Big Five

Sandra Stuart launched into the banking world 35 years ago as a teller at the HSBC Canada branch at Hastings and Gilmore. While that branch burned down long ago, Stuart’s career with HSBC has taken off—with progressive roles in Toronto, Brazil, Chicago and Vancouver. In 2010, she was named COO and served in this position until June 2015, when she was appointed president and CEO of HSBC Canada.

Stuart seems not to have forgotten her roots as a teller, however, when she describes what sets her Vancouver-based institution apart from most domestic banks. As part of HSBC Group, which operates in 71 countries and territories, HSBC Canada offers unique global expertise, she says. “I had breakfast with a customer this morning, and he’s doing business in the Netherlands. We can do his banking in the Netherlands. He’s off to China; we can help him in China. No domestic bank has that international reach. And no foreign bank in the country has our domestic presence.”

In a challenging year, with revenues down 3.5 per cent, Stuart emphasizes the need to “stay the course,” focusing on creating growth in the bank’s three lines of business: commercial banking, global banking and markets, and retail banking and wealth management. The bank reported a profit before income tax of $617 million in 2015, a decrease of 32 per cent from 2014. The drop was primarily due to the low interest rate environment, factors related to the weakened Canadian dollar and increased loan impairment charges arising from the bank’s energy portfolio.

HSBC Canada has been designated a “priority market” by the parent HSBC Holdings and therefore has support in making investments to meet its strategy of growth. With 145 branches across Canada (about half of those in B.C.) it doesn’t try to compete directly in retail banking with the Big Five, but Stuart says it does compete in areas such as debt capital markets and project financing.

“It’s certainly been an interesting year in terms of navigating the turns in the economic cycle,” she says. “While we’ve had to very carefully manage our exposure in Alberta and work with our customers to guide them through the downturn, we have a number of customers who are thinking about how to grow their business. So it’s also encouraging in a lot of ways.”

Stuart’s appointment to the top job last year was widely noted in an industry that is traditionally male-dominated. She is quick to point out, however, that she’s not the first woman to head a major bank in Canada: HSBC Canada board member Beth Horowitz was formerly CEO of Amex Bank of Canada. Still, she is hoping to see more change in the C-suites and boardrooms. “There’s a great sorority out there who reach out to each other as CEOs, so I don’t feel alone,” she says. “But I wish the tide would turn a little quicker.”