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LONDON (Reuters) - Standard Chartered (STAN.L) has named Mike Rees deputy to chief executive Peter Sands, making the wholesale banking chief the new heir-apparent at the Asia-focused lender after its highly-regarded finance director announced he was leaving.
The shock departure of Richard Meddings sent StanChart shares to an 18-month low. Meddings had been seen as frontrunner to succeed Sands and his decision to go as part of a reorganisation deprives the group of a key executive as it enters a new era of weaker growth.
StanChart had warned last month that its 10-year record of earnings growth would likely end and to combat that slowdown, the bank said on Thursday it would combine its wholesale and consumer banking units from April.
Rees will run the combined business and become deputy chief executive, a new role. As part of the reorganisation, Steve Bertamini, head of consumer banking, will also leave.
Analysts said the changes put Rees, a 24-year veteran of StanChart whose wholesale unit has been its growth engine, in pole position to succeed Sands, in charge since November 2006.
"It is obvious from the bank's disappointing results in the past year or so that a major change is needed. The senior changes seem to position Rees as Sands' obvious successor," said Jim Antos, analyst at Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd.
Meddings said the decision to quit as finance director by the end of June was his own and had not been prompted by the board or any outside parties. "After 11 years on the board of this bank and seven years as finance director it seems a natural time to step away," he told reporters.
Meddings' decision, taken over Christmas, helped send StanChart's London-listed shares down 4 percent to their lowest since summer 2012, when New York's regulators threatened to revoke its banking licence after it broke sanctions on Iran.
Even before the latest slide, the stock was bucking a positive industry trend, having lost 18 percent in the past 12 months against an 18 percent sector climb. .SX7P.
Meddings said the possibility of being overlooked as a CEO candidate had not been a factor in his decision.
Sands also said CEO succession plans had nothing to do with the changes and denied any disagreements among board members over the bank's capital strength, dismissing speculation the bank could be forced to raise funds from shareholders.
"We remain very comfortable with our capital position and have no plans (for a rights issue of new stock). We have a unified board which is fully behind the strategy ... which we've announced today," Sands told reporters.
Some analysts have expressed concern over the bank's growth prospects, saying potentially higher capital requirements could make it difficult for the company to make short-term headway on its return on equity.
StanChart makes more than three-quarters of its profits in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, which helped it come through the 2008 financial crisis relatively unscathed and made it a stock-market favourite because of its exposure to faster growth in those emerging markets.
But after a decade of sustained growth, the bank has hit a rocky patch and said in December its earnings had been hit by big losses in Korea, a slowdown in its key Asian markets and tougher regulations.
Sands denied Bertamini had paid the price for the bank's problems in Korea, where it has been forced to write off $1 billion (607.2 million pounds) after an overhaul of personal debt restructuring processes allowed more forgiveness on long-term loans.
He said the reorganisation would help StanChart sharpen its focus and deploy capital more effectively.
Meddings had been tipped for other top jobs as well as being seen as a likely replacement when Sands steps down.
But he was last month stripped of responsibility for risk oversight, due to concerns expressed by Britain's financial regulator. Sources said the regulator was concerned about StanChart's combination of risk and finance roles, rather than any issues with Meddings himself.
Meddings hit the headlines in 2012 when it was revealed he had cursed Americans in a conversation cited by a New York watchdog pursuing a money laundering case against the bank.
Rees, one of the world's best-paid bankers, will see his overall earnings potential drop in his new role. StanChart said his basic salary will rise to 975,000 pounds from 735,000 in April, but as part of his change of role, the bank anticipated his maximum earnings potential will fall 40 percent.
He was paid a total package of $12.2 million in 2012.
Additional reporting by Lawrence White in Hong Kong; Editing by David Holmes