Credit Suisse turns to a Swiss candidate to repair its reputation from latest mishap

·4 min read
 (Credit Suisse)
(Credit Suisse)

Credit Suisse turned to a Swiss candidate for the second time in two years for a top role at the bank as it struggles to repair its reputation after a series of trading and personnel scandals, writes Bloomberg.

The lender picked Zurich insider Axel Lehmann, 62, as its new chairman after Antonio Horta-Osorio was forced to resign following quarantine breaks after just nine months in charge.

That mirrors a move in early 2020 when it abruptly replaced CEO Tidjane Thiam after a spying scandal with Thomas Gottstein, the head of the local business and its first Swiss-born CEO in almost two decades.

Lehmann’s task now is to restore confidence in the institution after the failures of the past year made it the worst-performing major bank stock in the region.

The storied Zurich-based lender is struggling to stabilise as the departure of Horta-Osorio throws the revamp of the bank back into turmoil following the multi-billion-dollar blow-ups of 2021.

“Axel Lehmann in our view has a well-established profile in Switzerland,” JPMorgan analysts Kian Abouhossein and Amit Ranjan said in a note. “He along with the CEO is likely to continue working on improving the risk culture of the group.”

Lehmann is a relative newcomer, joining the board of directors in October, overseeing its risk committee.

He previously worked for rival UBS Group as chief operating officer and then as head of the personal and corporate banking unit as well as president of UBS Switzerland.

Horta-Osorio joined Credit Suisse in April as it was reeling from the losses incurred from the collapse of both Greensill Capital and Archegos Capital Management.

Taking a hands-on approach to the strategy review unveiled in November, Horta-Osorio quickly overshadowed Gottstein amid questions over the Credit Suisse veteran’s leadership.

On Monday, Lehmann pledged to continue with the strategy set by his predecessor, which includes focusing more on wealth management and paring back riskier activity in the investment bank.

“We have set the right course with the new strategy and will continue to embed a stronger risk culture across the firm,” he said in a statement.

Horta-Osorio had his detractors within Credit Suisse. Some executives who spoke on condition of anonymity before the ouster said the 57-year-old’s blunt approach was what the bank needed and appreciated him walking trading floors from New York to London and Paris.

Others described him as divisive.

Lehmann on the other hand is praised more for his role as mediator.

One executive who worked with him at UBS says he has a calming effect on more hot-headed colleagues and praised his rational and clinical approach to problems.

Another executive from his time at the Swiss rival praised his network within the country but said he lacked the vision needed for bigger roles.

“The new chairman, Axel Lehmann, is likely to see a return to a more traditional chairman-CEO relationship,” Citigroup analysts including Andrew Coombs wrote in a note.

While the overhaul plans shepherded by Horta-Osorio met with mixed reviews, “his departure leaves Credit Suisse with a lack of strong characters at the top and leadership questions will likely be raised.”

Lehmann spent almost two decades at Zurich Insurance Group, with one international stint as chief executive officer of the US business in the mid-2000s.

Lehmann also obtained an advanced management qualification at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2000.

The challenge for the new chairman will be to show shareholders, staff, clients and regulators that he is serious about ensuring Credit Suisse has a handle on its risks while also safeguarding growth in faster-growing regions outside its home market including China.

Credit Suisse has grappled with its identity in recent years while peers took more decisive steps to rethink business models that have been challenged by regulation put in place after the financial crisis.

The bank recently reversed a key plank of its 2015 overhaul under Thiam and has pledged to improve its risk management.

“Credit Suisse can ill-afford another scandal,” Citi’s Coombs wrote.

The risk is that some shareholders may criticise the bank for steam-rolling them in a similar fashion to when it replaced Thiam with Thomas Gottstein, the head of its Swiss unit.

Thiam, who previously led international insurers, was forced to step down after a spying scandal.

David Herro, deputy chairman of major Credit Suisse shareholder Harris Associates, said earlier this month that Horta-Osorio was the “exact answer to their problems.”

In 2020 Herro and other investors urged Credit Suisse’s then Chairman Urs Rohner to back Thiam or step down.

Arturo Bris, a finance professor at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, says that while focusing on the “Swiss DNA” of the bank may not be popular in some circles, Credit Suisse had little choice after news that Horta-Osorio broke quarantine.

“He’s not only Swiss, he’s a risk manager and the stereotype he will be going up against is one of the uncommunicative Swiss banker who doesn’t inspire, particularly to US shareholders,” Bris said in an interview. “But I don’t think there was an alternative”

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