(Bloomberg) -- Howard Davies leaves NatWest Group Plc in a very different state than when he joined. 

The lender’s annual general meeting today was held in the same headquarters at Gogarburn, near Edinburgh, where Davies has presided since 2016, with meetings in the early years often fiery occasions with shareholders complaining about bankers’ pay.

In the year Davies joined the board — 2015 — the bank formerly known as Royal Bank of Scotland had lost £2.7 billion ($3.3 billion), and was trying to exit 25 countries and curtail its investment banking ambitions. The UK government was impatient to start selling 80% of the group it still owned after a bailout in the global financial crisis. 

Last year, NatWest made a pretax profit of £6.2 billion, almost entirely from domestic retail and commercial banking. Davies’ replacement as chairman, Rick Haythornthwaite, hosted the AGM today, which was a far quieter affair. 

“We should not underestimate how much this bank has transformed in recent years,” Haythornthwaite said in his remarks at Tuesday’s shareholding meeting. “Where Howard was faced with fixing the issues of the past, I take on the role of chair with a mandate to help shape NatWest’s future.”

When Davies, now 73, was picked by the bank and the government, he was something of a surprise choice. Well known in economic and policy circles, he wasn’t a career banker. 

But his experience — including as a deputy governor of the Bank of England and chairman of the UK’s financial regulator — proved useful at a time of intense scrutiny and helped lay the groundwork for the Treasury’s eventual selldown. 

Davies “oversaw changes in the regulatory environment, political upheaval and management changes at the top of NatWest,” according to Fahed Kunwar, head of banks and equity research at Redburn Atlantic. “His role seemed less focused on the day to day running of the business and more on the relationship with central authorities.”

Share Sales

Haythornthwaite starts off as a relative unknown in British banking. He previously chaired Mastercard Inc. and Centrica Plc, and will likely help steer NatWest through the government’s final share sales — it now owns less than 30% — in a symbolic moment that should help turn the page on the bank’s near-failure 16 years ago. 

It wasn’t the smoothest of exits for Davies. Last summer, he was under pressure to resign, following his attempt to keep Chief Executive Officer Alison Rose in post. Rose eventually quit for speaking to a journalist about the closure of Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage’s account at NatWest’s upmarket Coutts division. 

Read More: NatWest CEO Rose Goes From UK Star to Outcast Over Farage

Days later, reporters asked Davies about his feelings on the public row, which had provoked ire from Farage as well as government figures over the “debanking” of politically-sensitive customers.

“I don’t have feelings,” came his response. “I’m not that sort of guy. I have rational assessments.”

NatWest was already considering who would take over from Davies at this point, as he approached the nine-year anniversary that is deemed the limit under the UK’s corporate governance code.

He endured the criticism as the bank sought to replace both Rose and himself. In February, the board — which by then included Haythornthwaite — named Paul Thwaite, the former commercial head who had stepped in to be interim chief, as permanent boss.

Share Drop

NatWest’s shares fell by about a fifth under Davies’s watch, although that reflects a tough time for British banking stocks generally — an issue that the chairman has raised with policymakers, seeing the health of finance as part of the national interest.

The bank became profitable again in 2017 and started to pay dividends in 2018. It’s removed key overhanging issues such as selling its business in Ireland, and settling US legal liabilities over mortgage bonds for $4.9 billion in May 2018. These steps, according to several people with knowledge of the matter, have laid the groundwork for the sale to the public which the government is planning.

Still, other long-running issues, such as the treatment of banking customers in its Global Restructuring Group, have outlasted even Davies’s tenure. 

Davies, who previously worked at consultancy McKinsey, has had several brushes with controversy. His tenure as head of the London School of Economics ended over a donation by the son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. 

Nor was Davies, the author of several books, shy of flaunting his intellect. He has chaired the Booker prize for fiction and held roles at the Tate Gallery and Royal Academy of Music. 

He spoke out on topics his peers have often avoided, appearing on shows such as BBC’s Question Time and the Today Programme. In 2022, he said in an interview Brexit was “a significant mistake,” and told NatWest staff he was “embarrassed” by Liz Truss’s short-lived government. He has also criticized his former employer, the Bank of England, for preventing lenders from paying dividends during the Covid pandemic, saying it hurt their investability. 

His blunt comments have sometimes got him into trouble, most recently when he declared that it wasn’t “that difficult” to get on the property ladder in the UK. He was referring to banks’ general appetite for lending, while seeming to overlook near-record prices and the unprecedented squeeze on first-time buyers in a cost-of-living crisis. “I fully realize it did not come across in that way for listeners,” he later conceded.

In the end, Davies left NatWest last week without commenting publicly on his departure. “The bank my successor inherits is very different to the one I joined in 2015,” he wrote earlier this year in the annual report, saying he was “proud” of its transformation.

--With assistance from William Shaw.

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