Profile: Stephen Whitehead, Barclays

There is a fine view of Docklands and the 2012 Olympics site from Stephen Whitehead’s office on the 30th floor of Barclays’ HQ at Canary Wharf. But the recently appointed corporate affairs director says he doesn’t much care for the panorama across the developments of east London – there are changes across the bank’s corporate landscape that require his full attention.

Not satisfied with its status as the UK's third-largest bank, Barclays moved one step closer to CEO John Varley's goal of becoming one of the world's top five financial institutions in July when it acquired South African bank Absa for £2.6bn.

But Barclays – which as well as the eponymous high-street bank comprises Barclaycard, investment banking arm Barclays Capital and asset management group Barclays Global Investors – is also, as Whitehead puts it, 'driving towards a cohesive reputation understanding' with stakeholders ranging from consumers to the City, regulators and governments.

Barclays snared 42-year-old Whitehead to replace corporate comms director Leigh Bruce in October –  the former's group corporate affairs director role at Allied Domecq had become superfluous when Pernod Ricard acquired the company in August. His arrival at Barclays is the latest stage in a career that has seen him lead PR at some of the UK's biggest corporate brands.

But this year has also been personally difficult for Whitehead, whose partner – Aspect Capital finance director Daniel Jardim – died unexpectedly in April aged just 32.

After taking time out for a trekking holiday in Africa, the first few weeks since joining Barclays have been a busy time for Whitehead. One of his first acts was to promote Alastair Camp internally to plug the gap left by the April exit of corporate responsibility director David Weymouth.

'I would like better integration in how we manage and work with our stakeholders,' Whitehead says in one of few insights he is willing to give into his plans. 'We do extraordinarily good work in our corporate responsibility area – I don't think we have got real recognition for that.'

Whitehead laughs at the 'hackneyed' reference to the fact that his career has moved through alcohol and drugs – as well as Allied Domecq he has worked for drinks giant Grand Metropolitan (later Diageo) and pharma firms GlaxoWellcome and Eli Lilly & Co. His interest, he says, has always been less in the industries themselves than 'steering a course around the issues'.

'People who criticise the banking and pharmaceutical industries need to go back to point zero and ask themselves whether we are a force for good,' Whitehead insists. 'We are not perfect. But we are fundamentally positive.'

Pearson group director of comms Luke Swanson, who worked with Whitehead at Grand Met remembers how he handled the tricky role of alcohol policy director and represented the company at the industry's self-regulating body The Portman Group.

'His style is particularly strategic and thoughtful,' Swanson says. 'But he can also work across and understand the whole comms mix.'
Whitehead, who despite his southern accent was educated in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, is also an accomplished networker. Cancer Research UK executive director of policy and comms Maxine Taylor, with whom Whitehead worked at Shandwick Communications (and whom he later hired at Lilly) describes him as 'dynamic and sparky'.

She also remembers Whitehead as 'always very smart and into fashion'. 'I know that he doesn't wear Armani, but he always gives the impression that he does,' she adds.

Barclays wants to build its global profile and is bound to meet resistance along the way. High in the group's Docklands tower, Whitehead leans his arm languidly on the back of a chair. His body language might be relaxed, but one senses any shake-up of Barclays' global PR, in line with the group's ambitious  strategy, could be far reaching. 

CV

1987 Account director, Shandwick Communications

1989 Corporate group manager, Burson-Marsteller

1991 Head of communications, Glaxo/GlaxoWellcome UK

1995 Director of external affairs/ alcohol policy director, Grand Metropolitan/Diageo

1998 Corporate affairs director, Eli Lilly & Co

2002 Group corporate affairs director, Allied Domecq

2005 Corporate affairs director, Barclays

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