Photograph of John Burke, c.1978. © RBS 2015.
John Burke (1924-83) was general manager of National Commercial Bank of Scotland and managing director of The Royal Bank of Scotland and The Royal Bank of Scotland Group.
Background and early life
John Burke was born in Glasgow in 1924. He attended Hutchesons’ Boys’ Grammar School. When the time came to plan for his future, he concluded that banking ‘seemed like a reasonable career’. He had an uncle who worked for National Bank of Scotland, so it was to this bank that he applied. He won a place as an apprentice, and started work in 1941.
The following year, upon reaching the age of 18, he joined the navy. His war service lasted until 1946, when he returned to civilian life, and to National Bank of Scotland.
For five years beginning in 1946 John Burke worked in National Bank of Scotland branches in Glasgow. In about 1951 he transferred to the bank’s head office in Edinburgh, working first in the chief accountant’s department and later in the inspector’s department. At that time the latter department was known as an established route to higher office in National Bank of Scotland.
In 1959 National Bank of Scotland merged with Commercial Bank of Scotland to form National Commercial Bank of Scotland. At around the same time, Burke was appointed personal assistant to the merged bank’s general manager. The role allowed him to witness at close hand all the demands, decisions and learning opportunities presented to bank management by a large-scale merger.
After two years as the general manager’s assistant, Burke was sent to London, where he spent time attached to various bodies on behalf of the bank. One key relationship he developed there was with the merchant bank J Henry Schroder, through which he developed a keen interest in merchant banking. In 1965, he used this interest to guide the formation of a Scotland-based merchant bank, a joint venture between Schroders and National Commercial, named National Commercial & Schroders. Burke was the new venture’s chief executive.
In 1967 Burke returned to National Commercial Bank as its assistant general manager. A year later he became general manager. In 1969 National Commercial merged with The Royal Bank of Scotland and Burke became general manager of the new, much-expanded, Royal Bank of Scotland Ltd. From 1970 onwards his title was managing director.
When the merger took place in 1969, a new structure was created with a holding company, National & Commercial Banking Group, which owned both The Royal Bank of Scotland and its English sister-bank, Williams & Glyn’s Bank. Initially the holding company had no executive powers, but in 1976 the board concluded that a co-ordinating overview between the two banks would bring strategic benefits. They therefore appointed Burke managing director of National & Commercial Banking Group, in addition to his role at the top of The Royal Bank of Scotland itself. In 1979 the holding company’s name was changed to The Royal Bank of Scotland Group.
Like the rest of the Group’s board, Burke supported the proposed acquisition of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group by Standard Chartered Bank in 1981. When the Monopolies & Mergers Commission blocked that bid – and a rival one from HSBC in 1982 – the Bank had to enter a phase of serious reflection, reconsidering its approach to the future.
Later in 1982, Burke retired from his roles as managing director of both The Royal Bank of Scotland and The Royal Bank of Scotland Group. He became deputy chairman of the Bank, and held that role until his death the following year.
John Burke served as president of the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland, 1973-5.
Family life and death
John Burke was married to Evelyn. They had a son and a daughter.
He was an enthusiastic and experienced hill walker. He died in a hill walking accident in Scotland in November 1983, at the age of 59. Charles Winter, his successor as managing director of The Royal Bank of Scotland, recalled him in obituaries as ‘a good friend and a man who represented all the best things in Scottish banking.’