For one day in 1995, he led the financial world in a violent tango that killed his company.
How did it go wrong at Barings? It is difficult to pinpoint where it all went belly up at what was once, allegedly, the Queen's personal bank. If you want a starting point, the archetypal 1990s city trader, driving his Porsche and doing business with a brick-sized mobile, is a good one. The Gordon Gekko 'Greed is good' message of the 1987 movie, Wall Street, was very much alive and well, and Nick Leeson, a working-class lad from Watford, was Barings Bank's star derivatives trader in Singapore.
Trading floors at the time had their 'Untouchables', says Leeson: not the Indian lowest of the low, but godlike Gekkos who could do as they pleased. This came at a cost, he says. "People were focusing on the money that was being made. It was never about control systems... Barings had risk managers and compliance officers, but they were never in a position of authority to challenge the Untouchables. People in those compliance positions needed to understand the business and what really went on. They clearly didn't at Barings."
In 1994, Leeson's luck began to run out, not through one of his own errors, he says, but through that of a fellow team member on the trading floor; and it was an error that would have vastly outweighed her annual salary. "In the culture at the time, failure was not what people were looking for. Highlighting any failure was difficult at work. At the time, I wanted to be successful, I wanted to be at the top of the organisation, a decision-maker. The world of finance was a method of achieving that."
Had it not been for Leeson's ambition and leadership style, this would have been a shorter story altogether. "If someone works for me, I have a natural inclination to help them - at all times. It should have been very black and white - where there had been an error, you reported it and you let whatever necessary mechanism there was take place. Typically, losses were made, they were talked about and people would lose their jobs as a consequence. There should have been some form of reprimand. The loss should have been reported up. I stopped that process."
Leeson not only stopped the process, but every time someone in his team made an error, including, above all, himself, the losses would illegally enter a hidden '88888 account' (eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture). "That solved it for me, as I didn't want someone looking closer at what was going on."
The 'failure is not an option' culture was also combined with a ruthless 24x7 style of management, hungry for profits. Even during Leeson's time in England for a funeral visit in 1994, he was asked to trade in London overnight. "I used to go in to Bishopsgate (Barings' global HQ in the City of London) for a week on my own - you can't believe it happened. However messed up I was in going through this, how messed up were some of the other people? I would be looking at the computer screen, with a cleaner coming round me with the hoover!"
By the end of 1994, the losses in the 88888 account stood at £200m. These grew further when the markets turned against him, the downturn accelerated by the economic impact of the earthquake in Kobe, in January, 1995. Leeson had bet the Japanese economy would recover swiftly, but the Nikkei had gone into a tailspin. The business, meanwhile, believed Leeson was still its star trader, accounting for around 90% of the profits.
Leeson requested and obtained extra funds to continue his trading activities, as he attempted to extricate himself from the financial losses. "They were so willing to accept what was going on [his supposed success on the trading floor]. They wanted to believe what I was doing." Eventually alerted by the requests, his bosses carried out an audit in February 1995.
By then, Leeson's activities had generated losses totalling £827 million, twice the bank's available trading capital. The collapse cost a further £100 million. Barings was declared insolvent on 26 February and was bought for £1, by Dutch banking and insurance group ING.
Leeson is keen to shoulder the responsibilities for his actions. He did his time in Singapore, serving four years in the tough Changi prison of a six and a half year sentence (he got early release after being diagnosed with cancer of the colon, from which he has recovered). He continues to draw attention to the cultural dangers in the financial industry. "If you wanted to highlight the number of people that could have stopped me, it would be well into the hundreds." Perhaps he is not admitting he himself was an untouchable.
Could the collapse all be down just to the culture at Barings? Cherchez la femme, says Leeson. "It wasn't just the dynamics at play in the workplace, but also outside of that. My wife, my family, my employers and those that worked for me.... I didn't want to let any of those people down."
To say this key point had a significant part to play would be an understatement. "That time I came home from Singapore in 1994, I did not want to go back. The easiest thing would have been not to have gone back in January 1995 and let it be exposed - the losses would have been less, the bank may have survived. The reason I did go back was that my wife had invited friends to come and visit us in March. I of all people couldn't turn around to her and say I had messed up. That lack of honesty in the domestic arena was the over-riding factor."
Leeson cites the example of the Baltimore branch of Allied Irish Bank's subsidiary, Allbank, where John Rusnak lost an estimated $691 million, earning him a seven-year jail sentence in 2003. "Look at him - middle class in Baltimore, lovely family, living well - you have to ask, why did he continue trading? He did not want to let them down. Fear of failure is sometimes more overriding in the domestic relationship than in the world of finance."
Leeson is not convinced the industry has taken any significant lessons on board since his time at Barings. "In the world of finance, if you go into any bank and ask it, 'What are your controls like?', it will tell you it is beyond reproach. It will guarantee it and bring out glossy brochures and explain what it is doing. But I believe this will happen again and that it will happen to somebody else."
Recent events in the financial markets would seem to support the Leeson belief of a continuing phenomenon of 'rogue trading' (the title of Leeson's jail autobiography, described by the FT as 'a dreary book, written by a young man very taken with himself, but it ought to be read by banking managers and auditors everywhere').
Since our interview, there is the example of the mis-selling of Payment Protection Insurance (PPI), forcing banks such as Lloyds to put aside huge sums of money (£3.2bn) for mis-selling claims by customers who took out PPI. Latest reports say the total cost to the banking sector of remedying PPI mis-selling could be as much as £9bn.
So what have we learnt? That recruitment of the highly driven and ambitious should come with a health warning? That the 'Greed is good' culture should be consigned to the annals of history? Leeson's views are realistic. "If you walk into a boardroom to develop a product or explore a market, people sit up and listen. If you want to introduce control mechanisms that will safeguard their assets, but cost x amount of money, they are less likely to listen. That is the way it was, and to some extent still is today - but hopefully the balance is shifting."
Clinging on to a 'hopefully' did not sound convincing. This convenient forgetfulness about distant financial disasters such as the South Sea Bubble of 1720 or recent spectacular events such as Enron's 2001 collapse and Société Générale's €4.9 billion loss in 2008 (courtesy of rogue trader, Jérôme Kerviel), amounts to a phenomenon of 'corporate amnesia', especially when the profits are coming in thick and fast. "That is the way the world of finance works. Look at Allied Irish Bank - it lost $600 million with John Rusnak (another rogue trader), but still reported $1.1 billion-worth of profit. Incompetence/negligence isn't always really sufficient to make any significant changes."
One hope for the future lies in simple, but effective line management, Leeson says. "Stories such as mine should always be highlighted. I never understood the concept of personal risk. I spent four pretty tough years in a Singapore prison. It is something I never imagined would happen. If personal risk is highlighted to future talent, they would be less likely to take certain actions. I would like to think if it was highlighted to me, I would not have done what I did."
Leeson's fear of failure and burning ambition were keys factor at Barings and are commonplace in today's generation Y: highly achievement-orientated and contending within a tough and competitive job market. Perhaps, though, aiming for, and expecting, perfection is not always realistic. "A friend of mine uses my story at Barings to explain that he expects people to make mistakes. He does not encourage it, but no-one is mistake-free. What he will not accept is when they try to hide it. He makes this clear to his employees right from the beginning. Barings never had meetings such as that, or even an HR department! Ask for advice - you are surrounded by people who have been in the same or similar positions. All you need to do is ask for help. That is one thing I never did."
At Barings, there was a lack of diversity in its workforce, an accusation also levelled by the US Securities and Exchange Commission at Enron, following its collapse. A lack of diversity can result in a lack of challenge, new approaches and innovation, with those suggesting alternatives being castigated for not being 'team players'. Leeson's response was not atypical when asked about the diversity at Barings. "It was certainly more diverse back then than it is now. The people that are being looked at today are coming from a far smaller gene pool. You are unlikely to be recruited unless you have a first degree." Leeson went to work as a clerk in Coutts, another alleged royal banker, straight from school, where he got a D in A Level maths.
Recent rises in the cost of tuition fees may only compound the lack of diversity/different backgrounds coming into the financial sector via, for example, the MBA route. Cambridge University recently highlighted to the Government's Office for Fair Access the challenges of increasing its intake from state schools after the rise in tuition fees. "The real thing for me," says Leeson, "is attracting intelligent individuals to the control areas in the organisation and giving them the authority that will enable them to make sure certain difficulties do not surface."
At one point, while sitting on losses of £40 million, Leeson entered into negotiations with a former boss for a bonus to keep up the façade of his Singapore trading success. Some 14 years later, in 2008, Hector Sants, head of the Financial Services Authority, issued a warning to the financial sector that the culture of big City bonuses could be encouraging too much risk-taking. Perhaps that was a factor in Leeson's behaviour at Barings?
"Was it the bonus that really encouraged the risk-taking? I don't think so. It was the need and desire for success more than anything else. Whenever there is a scandal, the finger is pointed at the individual, rightly so, but it takes the attention away from the lack of control in the system and what has been happening for the past 10 to 15 years. Right now, the bonuses are a scapegoat - the focus should be on the systems and controls that are still not in place. There haven't been people in the organisations to challenge what is going on - central banks, government banks and individual banks."
With banks such as HSBC doubling their profits to £11.8 billion this year - chief exec Stuart Gulliver was recently handed a £5.2 million bonus - it appears the banks are bouncing back. "If they are good at what they do, they should be paid. Can you reinvent the process? You can't. Bonuses are there - they are there to stay. If you have a trader who is making large sums of money, the business will want them and have the money to pay for them. There is a debate that bonuses for ethically correct behaviour are the way to go - but if the person is making shedloads of money [and not behaving to the guidelines], would they not simply move somewhere else? Without solidarity in the industry on the level of bonuses, that is going to happen."
You could be forgiven for thinking the rogue trader phenomenon is confined to the financial sector. But let's just reflect on what this article has covered; the greed is good culture; the untouchable few; the devaluing of control/risk management; the 'failure is not an option' outlook; and challenges around diversity. These are longstanding factors to contend with in the workplace. They challenge HR, as to whether the organisation and its employees truly live the values they champion, or if simply getting a profit makes the hierarchy turn a blind eye.
Sir Richard Branson has recently appointed Peter Norris, former CEO of Barings, to head the board of Virgin Group, covering brands such as Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Rail. Norris is an individual who stated that the Barings board's "critical faculties were less engaged than they should have been because of profits". Let us hope Branson and Norris can waltz together without stepping on each other's toes. Nick Leeson will be observing it all with a wry, knowing smile.
Occupational psychologist Michael Costello works at Coventry University's Acua project, which provides organisational, management and leadership development solutions to business. See www.coventry.ac.uk/acua. Nick Leeson is now the 'after-dinner' speech circuit, through NMP Live. He is on Twitter @TheNickLeeson