Credit Suisse CEO Thiam quits after losing boardroom battle in the wake of spying scandal

In this file photo taken on April 28, 2017, Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam attends the annual shareholders' meeting of the Swiss banking group in Zurich.
In this file photo taken on April 28, 2017, Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam attends the annual shareholders' meeting of the Swiss banking group in Zurich.PHOTO: AFP

ZURICH (REUTERS) - Credit Suisse chief executive Tidjane Thiam has quit after a power struggle with chairman Urs Rohner at Switzerland's second-biggest bank over a damaging spying scandal.

The Zurich-based lender said on Friday (Feb 7) that Mr Thiam would be replaced by Mr Thomas Gottstein, who is head of the Swiss business at Credit Suisse.

The departure ends a conflict between Mr Thiam and Mr Rohner after revelations that the bank had snooped on former executives triggered questions over its culture and management.

Credit Suisse's spying surfaced in September when former star wealth manager Iqbal Khan, after switching to rival UBS, confronted a private detective following him and his wife through Zurich.

But Mr Thiam's exit will not draw a line under the affair at Credit Suisse. Some international investors had spoken out in favour of the CEO in his battle with Mr Rohner and Switzerland's market supervisor is probing the board's oversight of Mr Thiam and his top lieutenants.

The bank's shares were down 3.7 per cent by 0935 GMT (5.35pm Singapore time).

Credit Suisse's board said that Mr Rohner had its backing to complete his term until April 2021.

Mr Thiam, 57, was appointed as CEO in 2015, having never previously worked for a bank. At Credit Suisse, the former Prudential boss focused on cutting costs, reducing risk, scaling back investment banking to focus more on wealth management, and strengthening its balance sheet.

Engineering that turnaround led to three years of consecutive losses, but the bank returned to profit in 2018, leading to plaudits for the former Ivory Coast government minister and McKinsey management consultant.

What the bank initially described as a rogue spying case run by then chief operating officer Pierre-Olivier Bouee widened as details emerged of additional instances of surveillance.

 
 

Swiss financial supervisor Finma is conducting its own investigation after the bank subsequently acknowledged that it had tailed former human resources head Peter Goerke.

Mr Thiam again said he knew nothing about the surveillance.

"I had no knowledge of the observation of two former colleagues. It undoubtedly disturbed Credit Suisse and caused anxiety and hurt. I regret that this happened and it should never have taken place," Mr Thiam said in the statement.

'SAFE PAIR OF HANDS'

Mr Gottstein, a prominent investment banker and wealth manager before taking over Credit Suisse's domestic operation, had been flagged by analysts as a potential successor to Mr Thiam.

"Based on his deep and comprehensive experience in our business and in view of his impressive performance as head of our Swiss bank and his respect amongst our clients and employees, Thomas Gottstein is excellently positioned to lead Credit Suisse into the future," Mr Rohner said in a statement.

Mr Gottstein will be the first Swiss citizen to run Credit Suisse in almost 20 years. The 55-year-old has been at the bank since 1999, joining from rival UBS. He has spent most of his career working in equity capital markets before taking over as chief of Credit Suisse's Swiss bank in 2015.

Citigroup analysts described Mr Gottstein in a note as a "safe pair of hands".

Mr Thiam's resignation, effective from Feb 14 after the presentation of fourth-quarter and full-year 2019 results, came at a board meeting on Thursday.

During the meeting in Zurich directors backed Mr Rohner despite calls from Swiss investment adviser Ethos Foundation for him to quit.

"Urs Rohner has led the board of directors commendably during this turbulent time," said board member Severin Schwan in the bank's statement.

"After careful deliberations, the board has been unanimous in its actions, as well as in reaffirming its full support for the chairman to complete his term until April 2021."

In Switzerland, Credit Suisse and UBS typically have a Swiss national as either chairman or chief executive. Mr Gottstein's appointment could therefore pave the way for a non-Swiss chairman.

One person familiar with the matter said Mr Richard Meddings, a British banker set to join the board, could take over from Mr Rohner.

Mr Andre Helfenstein, now responsible for Credit Suisse's institutional clients in Switzerland, will succeed Mr Gottstein as CEO of the Swiss business and join the executive board.