Credit Suisse Taps First Swiss Chief in Decades Amid Turmoil
Credit Suisse Group AG is turning to the first Swiss-born Chief Executive Officer in almost two decades to restore calm in a boardroom shaken by infighting and personal animosities.
Thomas Gottstein, who was named Friday to succeed Tidjane Thiam at the helm of the lender, is as Swiss an executive as they come: A 20-year veteran of the bank, with degrees in business administration and accounting from the University of Zurich. He rose through the ranks in a career path that tracked the evolution of Credit Suisse from an investment bank to a firm more focused on wealth management.
But his biggest achievement until now was overseeing one of the crown jewels of the lender, the unit known as Swiss Universal Bank. A sort of miniature Credit Suisse focused on the domestic market, it is the biggest contributor to pretax profit and includes a private banking arm as well as investment banking. Initially slated for a partial spinoff to help raise capital, the lender reversed course in 2017 and kept the business.
Now Credit Suisse is betting Gottstein, 55, can take his experience running a steady domestic operation onto a global stage. In turning to a homegrown executive who limited experience abroad, but who is well connected with the elites at home, the firm is joining the likes of Deutsche Bank AG in breaking with a series of high-profile international CEO that have, at best, brought mixed results over the past decades.
“Gottstein is very Swiss, it’s a big contrast,” said Andreas Venditti, an analyst at Vontobel. Still, he “has a background in investment banking, he doesn’t know only Switzerland. I wouldn’t say that this is a retreat from a global ambition.”
Gottstein is taking over after Thiam was ousted in the wake of a tabloid scandal that unnerved the Swiss establishment. The drama started when it emerged that top management hired detectives to follow former executive Iqbal Khan, who was joining rival UBS Group AG. Embarrassing disclosures followed, including accounts of a personal feud and physical altercation between Thiam and Khan and the suicide of a contractor.
While Thiam, 57, was cleared in an internal probe and a close lieutenant was blamed, the bank has struggled to move beyond the scandal. Swiss regulators have launched their own inquiry, raising questions about the culture at the top of the firm.
Like Credit Suisse Chairman Urs Rohner, Gottstein is a member of the Swiss establishment, sitting on various boards including at regulator Finma, at the Swiss stock exchange and the Zurich Opera House. He’s an excellent golfer, with a handicap of 0.7, and in his youth played soccer for local club FC Zurich.
People who know him describe Gottstein as blunt and very focused on numbers. Last year, as tensions at Credit Suisse were rising in the wake of the spying scandal, Gottstein got into an altercation with an associate of Khan at Zurich’s Kronenhalle, a famous restaurant where the city’s business elite frequently meets, according to people familiar with the matter.
Analysts describe the new CEO as a “safe pair of hands” ensuring continuity after the departure of Thiam, who successfully pivoted Credit Suisse from volatile investment banking toward a focus on more stable wealth management.
Gottstein joined Credit Suisse’s investment bank in 1999, working on deals including Glencore International Plc’s $10 billion initial public offering. Before returning to Zurich, he spent 13 years as an investment banker in London. He switched to wealth management in 2014 and became head of the Swiss Universal Bank in 2015, the year Thiam joined.
”The board came to the conclusion that Thomas was the right person to lead Credit Suisse in the next chapter, given that he has worked in all aspects of banking, private banking, the Swiss bank, and in equity capital markets in London,” Rohner said. “He is the whole package, a very good leader, and a good manager who is well liked by employees and clients.”
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