LONDON — HSBC Holdings PLC's incoming chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, is sharpening his focus on the banking group's retail business, announcing Friday the appointment of Paul Thurston as head of worldwide retail banking and wealth management.

Thurston, the current CEO of U.K. operations, will return to Hong Kong and take on the new role in March next year. He will be replaced in the U.K. by Brian Robertson, currently chief risk officer for the HSBC group, on Dec 3.

The appointments mark Gulliver's "first steps as he builds his senior leadership team," HSBC spokesman Robert Bailhache told Dow Jones Newswires. "Basing [Thurston's] position in Hong Kong is a declaration of intent with respect to the wealth management opportunity in the emerging markets," Bailhache said.

Gulliver, who will replace current group CEO Michael Geoghegan at the start of next year, said that after the financial crisis, "configuring HSBC to realise its full potential in retail banking was always going to be my first priority."

"With the massive wealth creation we see in emerging markets today, the logic for HSBC to build a world class global wealth business for our customers is absolutely compelling," Gulliver said.

Thurston's appointment may surprise some people who expected Gulliver to focus more on the bank's wholesale and trading businesses, which he used to run. Gulliver "aims to cut a lot of red tape at HSBC and improve the efficiency" of the group, Bailhache said.

HSBC said Thurston's appointment brings the bank's retail business "under a single, internationally experienced leader and marks the retail team starting to take shape under Stuart Gulliver to further tap the $1 trillion revenue wealth management market globally."

Citing a September report by Merrill Lynch and Cap Gemini, Bailhache noted that the wealth of Asia's millionaires reached $9.7 trillion in the last quarter, exceeding for the first time their European counterparts who had $9.5 trillion.

A Boston Consulting Group report said China's middle class, those who earn $5,000 or more in annual income, is expected to double to 314 million people within five years.

"Given its position in China as a large international bank, HSBC is positioned to capture a lot of that potential new business," Bailhache said.

Thurston worked in Hong Kong from 2000 to head HSBC's personal financial services business in the territory. He was appointed as a general manager of the HSBC group in October 2003, when he also headed the group's personal financial services business across Asia Pacific.

He moved to HSBC's operations in Mexico in 2007 and became responsible for the group's business in Mexico, Central America and Colombia.

Thurston moved to London in 2008, becoming a member of the group management board and managing director of U.K. banking. He was appointed CEO of U.K. operations in April 2009.

HSBC also said Marc Moses will replace Robertson as group chief risk officer and that Joe Garner will be Robertson's deputy, leading HSBC's retail and commercial banking business in the U.K.

Moses is currently HSBC's chief financial and risk officer, responsible for its global banking and markets business. Garner is currently group general manager of the U.K. personal financial services business.

In the first half of the year, HSBC's U.K. operations contributed slightly more than half of its European pretax profit of $2.8 billion, and about 13% of its worldwide pretax profit of $11.1 billion.

Bailhache said the four officials had no immediate plans to talk to the press.

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