Gordon Haskins, LLB 1991 

On banking in Kazakhstan, pivoting to the Okanagan Valley, and everything else in between

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Van Smith

From the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Nexus

 

LC: What was your reaction when RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) offered you the country manager role in Kazakhstan?

GH: I said, “Well, I'd have to speak to my wife, but I certainly would be potentially interested.” In fact, she responded to it very well. Like me, she was up for the adventure. It's been that, actually—a great opportunity for me for work, but also a great opportunity to have an adventure out in a relatively unknown part of the world.

 

LC: Can you tell me a little bit about that adventure?

GH:  I’m working in a completely different country where I didn't speak the language when I came, and unfortunately, I haven't learned it well enough to do much more than order basic things in a restaurant. Russian is not the easiest language to learn, so that's had its challenges. We work in English in the bank, and in business, all the time. That’s partly why I haven't been challenged to learn it, I suppose.

As an undergrad student of Cold War politics and history, it was an unusual part of the former Soviet Union to be working in, but also a fascinating part of the world, and not one I admittedly knew a lot about before I came. We've done some travels down to Kyrgyzstan, which is next door. My wife has been to Uzbekistan. Most recently, we went up to Mongolia. It’s been a great opportunity to visit other parts of the world, but it’s also a long way from everywhere. There are not a lot of places in the world that are further from everything than Almaty.

 

LC: What was RBS’s strategy for going into central Asia, and specifically Kazakhstan?

GH: ABN AMRO, which was the Dutch bank that RBS took over back in 2007, had been out here since the early mid-90s. In fact, ABN AMRO was the first international bank to set up operations in Kazakhstan. It had also come into Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, since there were growth opportunities. When RBS took over ABN AMRO, or parts of it, it gained the international network of offices around the world, which were more numerous than RBS had at the time. The goal was a global investment and network bank. Of course, the financial crisis hit and you could say the rest is history. The bank was bailed out by the UK government during the crisis.

Since then, it's really been a matter of restructuring and retrenching a fair bit, including exiting quite a number of countries, most recently about another 25, and Kazakhstan being one of them.

 

LC: So what are you doing now?

GH: I've been involved through the whole sales process, negotiating with potential buyers and working on a final bid with one of the buyers. However, we're still working on the sale—on the various integration aspects and regulatory aspects—as there have been some delays. There are lots of complexities in selling a bank. Then I head back to the UK presumably.

 

LC: When did you know you wanted to move from being the head of transaction execution in structured finance, to being a strategy leader and country head?

GH: I had done structured finance in Vancouver at Davis & Co., as it was at the time. It's DLA Piper now. Then I moved to London to join Clifford Chance and started working in securitization and structured finance. After a number of years, I joined RBS, which had been a client of Clifford Chance, and spent a number of years on the transaction execution team, in the securitization and structured finance business. And then I began  looking at some other opportunities.

I had started to become involved in discussions with the trade associations in London and Europe. It was in the early stages of the financial crisis—the villain in all of it was securitization in many people’s minds, and there wasn’t a lot of distinction between the securitizations that ultimately did fail, and those deals that were healthier and, in the end, did survive the crisis relatively well.

There was a lot of discussion with regulators and law makers in Brussels, in particular, who were first looking at the issue in Europe. I started out as an industry expert out of the securitization and structured-finance business, and then decided to take up an opportunity where I would be doing that on a more full-time basis for the bank, working with the regulatory developments team and being one of the main liaisons with people in Brussels, Strasbourg and Westminster on a lot of those early-stage developments with the post-crisis regulation that was coming in.

I did that for a while. It wasn’t so much a light switching on, it was a bit more of a gradual progression, and an opportunity that came up that I decided to pursue for a while. Then another opportunity came up when I made the move back into the capital markets business as chief operating officer. I had known the head of that business for many years in the bank and in fact prior to that, when I was at Clifford Chance, he was a client.

I did that for a couple of years, and that’s partly what resulted in the opportunity to come out here to Kazakhstan as a country manager and take on a lot more responsibility.

 

LC: What would you say has been a career highlight to date?

GH: There have been a few. I look back to the early days in Davis & Co. when I worked on some of the structured finance deals as a very junior associate. I had a lot of responsibility for the work that was going on—these were incredibly daunting, complex deals—and it was a huge highlight at the time. I felt like there was a lot of confidence in me from the firm. I think subsequently working in London and working at Clifford Chance, one of the top law firms in the world, was a great opportunity for me. In fact, my training at the law school, and subsequently at the law firm in Canada, was great training for that.

There were quite a few of us from Canada and other common law countries at the time at Clifford Chance, and I realized that I had excellent schooling and excellent articles and legal training. In my view, it was quite an achievement to get hired by one of the top law firms in the world.

 

LC: What's next for Gordon Haskins?

GH: Back to London probably, once we finish here. But we recently purchased 15 acres in the Okanagan Valley in BC’s wine region. That's going to be our early retirement property at some point, a completely different life of orchards and vineyards. Ultimately we’d like to have an art retreat, which is something my wife is quite into.

We had a community art studio in London for a number of years before we left there, which we started up in our local neighbourhood, in a rented old warehouse building, not far from our house in east London. It used to be a glass factory. People in the community helped to fix and clean it up and turn it into a studio space. It grew from there. We had all kinds of different events going on: art exhibitions, summer fairs, ‘jumble’ sales, as we called them in London—a kind of yard or garage sale to raise money for charity. We did a lot of local charity fundraising through the studio, and got the local community really quite engaged, which there was not a lot of in that part of east London. It became a real focal point for the local community, and it's still running. It’s called Red Door Studios. It's being managed by somebody we handed the business over to, but we're still peripherally involved in it with advice here and there. We always go see it when we're back in London.