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Michael O'Neill

Today, it is my great honour to welcome Michael O'Neill to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Michael O'Neill is an experienced financial services executive who has led major financial institutions in the United States and elsewhere. He has a formidable reputation for turning around businesses that were experiencing difficulties and in need of restructuring.

He is also a former Birkbeck student, speaking warmly about his lecturers and fellow students, to whom (he laughs) he used to "provide grandfatherly advice", as well as praising the breadth of the interdisciplinary courses offered and the College's access to libraries such as the Courtauld and Warburg. His philanthropy also demonstrates his support of our College, its mission, and quality of research.

Mike O'Neill was born in California in 1946 but, since his father was a U.S. diplomat, he spent much of his early life in Asia and Europe. He went to Princeton University for his first degree, graduating in 1969 in European Civilization. After that, he worked briefly in South Vietnam near the end of the war, with the rather exciting (and dangerous) job of ferrying cash around the country. Always one to grasp a challenge, he trained as a Marine – one of the most gruelling physical as well as mental training regimes in the world – and served as a lieutenant in the Corps until 1971. By 1974, he could be found at the Darden Graduate School of Business in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is ranked in the top business schools in the US, where he graduated with an MBA. The logical step was to go into banking, which he did in 1974. However, rumour has it that he really wanted a career in art, but this changed when he was interviewed for a job at Continental Bank in Chicago. The building, built in the 1920s, entranced him. As he told one journalist, the building

"was a classic example of the excesses of the 20s. It had a grand banking hall with marble columns, hundred-foot ceilings, frescoes painted by Italian artisans, and oak paneling and furniture imported from castles in England and Scotland. I walked right in there and said, "Man, I want to sit here. This just feels right" (, 2019)."

This took his career from Chicago to New York City, London, Brussels, and Asian nations. 

Career highlights (and there are too many to mention in what must be a short oration) include being Chief Financial Officer of the Continental Bank Corporation in Chicago (1993-1995), Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer of the Bank of America in San Francisco (1995-1998), Chief Executive Officer of Barclays PLC (1999), and Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Bank of Hawaii Corporation in Honolulu (2000-2004). At this stage, he was ready for a change. He moved back to London and could be found at Birkbeck, studying the history of Early Modern Europe. Like everyone in this room, he learnt how to juggle evening classes with everything else happening in his life.

But the Great Financial Crisis saw him recalled to banking work: he joined the Board of Directors of Citigroup in New York to help lead Citigroup through the crisis. Citi is the leading global bank, with around 200 million customer accounts. It does business in more than 160 countries and jurisdictions. From 2012 to 2018, O'Neill served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Citigroup. He is widely recognised as the person who turned around Citibank's fortunes through strategies aimed at stabilising the bank, restructuring, enhancing its focus, and generating sustainable growth. Citi CEO Michael Corbat credited O'Neill's stint as Chairman for involving an "unrelenting focus on improving shareholder returns, ethics and culture, strong governance, and enhancing both the expertise and the diversity of our Board".

O'Neill has a talent for seeing risks that others miss. Banking experts call him a "smokejumper" – that is, he resembles a highly trained wildland firefighter who is parachuted into a fire-disaster zone to provide the initial response to a fire as well as leadership for other members of the team. Smokejumpers are renowned for their physical fitness, high motivation, independent thinking, and ability to react appropriately to rapidly changing circumstances while under pressure. According to, O'Neill is "one of banking's most successful turnaround artists".

But he is much more than that. O'Neill has always given back to the diverse communities around him. At various times in his life, this has included scholarly communities, such as The Darden School of Business, the Hawaii Pacific University, and The Economic Club of New York, which promotes the study of economic, social, and political questions. He is a great supporter of cultural institutions, including being a trustee or serving on the Boards of great museums, such as the Bishop Museum in Honolulu (which houses the world's largest collection of Hawaiian and Pacific cultural artifacts and natural history specimens), the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, The Honolulu Museum of Art, the Cloisters Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

What about the man? He is a passionate Europhile. As is indicated in his choice of scholarly interests, he has a deep knowledge of European history and art, including a collection of Old Master paintings and objets d'art. As Professor Julian Swann (now Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and someone who taught O'Neill when he was at Birkbeck) told me, O'Neill is simply "the nicest of guys". He is a "people's person", a "financial wizard", a "terrific sage", and an honest, inspiring leader. He has been married fifty years to Patricia, and their two sons, Michael and Peter, who are now in their thirties, were both born in London. Like many in this room, O'Neill is a Birkbeckian and the epitome of an eternal lifelong learner.

This College Fellowship is in recognition of his business and philanthropic accomplishments, as well as demonstrating the incredible success and global reach of our alumni community. We are thrilled that he is now a Fellow of our College.