Billionaires join queue to sign up for bank that likes to say: Maybe
Our correspondent enters the cloisters of an ancient institution that prefers to shun modernity
By Caroline Merrell
STEPPING into the banking hall of C Hoare & Co in London’s Fleet Street is like going back in time. The corridor entrance is adorned with muskets from the Napleonic wars, and the wood-panelled hall is decorated with a trio of bowler hats and an oil painting depicting one of the Hoare family.
A group of smartly dressed tellers is on hand to serve customers face to face — minus the obligatory reinforced glass screens. The only concession to modernity, apart from desktop computers, are the security cameras keeping a close eye on the entrance to one of the City’s best-kept secrets.
C Hoare & Co was founded in 1672 by Sir Richard Hoare, who started it from a goldsmith’s business dealing in gold and silver plate and precious stones. Today the bank has about 10,000 customers, employs 220 staff, has assets of £1 billion and manages an estimated £350 million.
Information on the bank is sketchy. Customers are furnished with a one-page balance sheet featuring just seven entries under assets and five under liabilities. Products are not detailed, although the bank’s website outlines its deposit account — which pays an uncompetitive 2.75 per cent on deposits greater than £100,000. Other high street institutions pay more than 4 per cent.
Alexander Hoare is the chief executive, and one of seven partners and family members who run one of the oldest private banks in the world. He is an eleventh-generation Hoare and shares his office with, among others, Venetia and Simon Hoare, fourth and ninth cousins, respectively. Smartly dressed, quietly spoken and articulate, Mr Hoare is the epitome of a private banker.
Clearly proud of the family tradition — the family seat at Stourhead in Wiltshire is one of the first Palladian houses to be built in England — Mr Hoare emphasises the bank’s unique culture.
Famous clients from the 18th and 19th centuries include Samuel Pepys, Lord Byron and Jane Austen. Sir David Hoare, the bank’s chairman, continues to live at another family residence, the John Nash-designed Luscombe Castle, in South Devon.
At Hoare & Co the emphasis is on personal recommendation. The chief executive says: “We get customers by word of mouth. We have never advertised and don’t intend to. Many of our new customers come to us because they have become completely fed up with their existing banking arrangements.”
Clearly not everyone will qualify for a bank account at Hoare & Co. Acceptance is not just a case of having liquid assets of more than £250,000. New customers have to be introduced by two people known to the bank, and even then they are not guaranteed to get an account.
Mr Hoare says: “Those that are introduced to us do not automatically become customers. They have to satisfy the quantitative test for assets and liabilities. They also have to satisfy a qualitative test — does this customer fit in well with the other customers?”
Originally the bank’s customers were drawn from the aristocracy and landed gentry. The bank once even considered keeping pigs and chickens in its perfectly manicured courtyard to make its gentleman-farmer clients feel at home. Now customers are drawn from the legal profession — the bank is a stone’s throw from the Royal Courts of Justice — the City and the “globally rich”.
While admitting that the bank has received takeover approaches — most of the world’s banks are trying to attract accounts from the wealthy — Mr Hoare is keen to emphasise the bank’s independence.
He says: “We do not want to grow, a lot of chief executives want to increase their empire. I would call it spending other people’s money. We keep on growing our profitability. Cazenove and Lazard (two rivals) have lost their independence, which makes us more unique and outstanding.”