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Thomas Gottstein: Credit Suisse boss buffeted by series of crises

Insiders speculate that Thomas Gottstein is one more blunder away from losing his job © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

During the nadir of the Credit Suisse “spygate” scandal – which pitted then chief executive Tidjane Thiam against Iqbal Khan, his former protégé – another of the bank’s top executives, Thomas Gottstein, was having dinner in the Kronenhalle, Zurich’s top establishment restaurant.

This content was published on April 12, 2021 - 09:49
Owen Walker and Stephen Morris in London, Financial Times

Across the room he spotted Khan’s personal PR adviser, who he believed was fanning the flames. Gottstein interrupted the meal to walk over and upbraid him. The exchange was heated enough that fellow diners – sat beneath paintings by Miró, Picasso and Chagall – craned their necks to see, people familiar with the contretemps recall.

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The episode marked a rare show of public aggression from 57-year-old Gottstein, who last year became the first Swiss national to lead Credit Suisse in 18 years. A surprise choice, he was widely regarded as a safe pair of hands who would steady the ship after the untimely ousting of Thiam.

But Gottstein’s tenure has so far been anything but low key.

This week Credit Suisse admitted to a $4.7 billion (CHF4.35 billion) loss from the collapse of Archegos, after it lent billions of dollars to the family office and its risk controls were found wanting.

Deepening Gottstein’s problems, Credit Suisse may have also lost some of its key ultra-wealthy clients up to $3 billion in funds run by Greensill Capital, a supply-chain finance firm that collapsed into insolvency last month.

Both incidents marked a far cry from Gottstein’s pledge to start 2021 with a “clean slate”. They have once again thrust Credit Suisse centre stage and drawn questions over the competency of its CEO – barely a year after his battlefield promotion. Multiple internal and regulatory probes loom.

‘Extremely straight shooter’

Born in Zurich in 1964, Gottstein was not always destined for the upper echelons of European banking. A talented golfer, he represented Switzerland in five World Amateur Team Championships between 1984 and 1992. He once had a handicap of +3 but now plays off -2.

An avid skier, Gottstein is often spotted in the Swiss ski resort of Klosters, where he spends time with his wife, two children and two dogs, one a Boston Terrier puppy he drove to Germany to collect the weekend after he was promoted.

After a brief stint at UBS, Gottstein joined its rival Credit Suisse in 1999 and initially worked his way up through the investment bank, notably working on Glencore’s $11 billion IPO in 2011.

“He’s not an arrogant risk-taker that you find sometimes in American bankers,” said one Swiss banker who worked with Gottstein on several deals. “Attention to detail is probably one of his weaknesses, but apart from that, he is very smart and understands risk and capital markets.” 

Gottstein caught the eye of Thiam when the French-Ivorian joined Credit Suisse in 2015, despite their differences in style and demeanour. Thiam was a debonair, gregarious, global financial celebrity; Gottstein a scruffier type, little-known outside of Zurich, often dressed without a tie and with his sleeves rolled up.

The two struck a bond and Thiam elevated Gottstein to head the lender’s domestic bank in 2016 ahead of a planned listing of the business that was eventually scrapped. They remain close.

“He is known for being sometimes too blunt in his Swissness, but I find him to be an extremely straight shooter,” one former colleague said. “I would be very surprised given his character that he would do something nefarious or lie.” Another person who knows Gottstein described him as a “boy scout” for his dogged adherence to rules.

Walter Kielholz, the outgoing chair and former CEO of Swiss Re, said Gottstein had a “strong personality to lead an organisation like Credit Suisse, in good and in difficult times”. He added: “He is strongly rooted within the company and within the business community.”

Pressure

Just days after Gottstein took charge last February, Europe went into coronavirus-induced lockdown. He gained plaudits in Switzerland for spearheading a $20 billion package of emergency loans to support small businesses, provided by 121 domestic lenders.

But by April he was under renewed pressure after Credit Suisse lost money when Luckin Coffee defaulted on a $518 million margin loan. The Swiss bank was part of a syndicate of banks that had lent to the Chinese coffee chain.

In the summer Gottstein ordered a revamp of the business aimed at cutting costs and improving efficiencies. He promoted Lara Warner to chief risk and compliance officer and Brian Chin to head of the investment bank.

This was to prove shortlived. In hastily arranged board meetings over the Easter weekend, Gottstein proposed Warner’s and Chin’s removal, which was approved by his fellow directors, according to people involved in the decisions. The board have been putting pressure on Gottstein to take decisive action after being blindsided on both the Greensill and Archegos losses. Five other senior managers were also dismissed.

“The two people he promoted last year he has had to fire,” a colleague said. “That has got to hurt.” Another added: “He can be very lovely on a personal level, but he can be a tyrant when things go wrong, shouting and stamping his feet.”

More losses followed in the second half of 2020. Credit Suisse took a $450 million writedown on its stake in US alternatives manager York Capital Management, and announced a potential $680 million hit from financial crisis-era US mortgage-bond litigation.

Following the Greensill and Archegos debacles, insiders speculate that Gottstein is one more blunder away from losing his job. Credit Suisse’s new chair – outgoing Lloyds CEO António Horta-Osório – arrives on April 30. “AHO”, as he is known, is just a few weeks older than his CEO and has a far more “hands-on” style than his predecessor, Urs Rohner. 

For Gottstein, the worry is that Horta-Osório may want his own “clean slate” to work from.

Additional reporting by Arash Massoudi in London

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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