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Sergio Ermotti: George Clooney of Swiss banking back as UBS boss

AFP
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Sergio Ermotti: George Clooney of Swiss banking back as UBS boss
Newly appointed UBS CEO Sergio Ermotti speaks during a press conference in Zurich on March 29th, 2023. (Photo by ARND WIEGMANN / AFP)

Switzerland-born Sergio Ermotti, back as chief executive of UBS to oversee the mammoth takeover of Credit Suisse, has gone from local apprentice to the two-time boss of a top global bank.

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Nicknamed the "George Clooney of Paradeplatz", after the Hollywood star and the Zurich square at the heart of Switzerland's banking industry, the silver haired 62-year-old is known for always being immaculately turned out.

The Swiss banker, who returns to the UBS hot seat at its annual general meeting on Wednesday, has a reputation that lives up to such star billing, having turned around the fortunes of UBS after the 2008 global financial crisis.

As a child, he dreamed of a career in football but made his mark instead as one of the most talented bankers of his generation, the Neue Zurcher Zeitung
newspaper said after his return to UBS was announced on Tuesday.

At 15, he quit school to become an apprentice at the Corner private bank in Lugano, his home town in the Italian-speaking south of Switzerland.

From there, he started out on a dazzling journey seen as a shining example of the Swiss apprenticeship system.

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After a stint at the US bank Citigroup, he rose through the ranks of the US investment bank Merrill Lynch between 1987 and 2004, completing his training along the way via the advanced management programme at Britain's prestigious Oxford University.

In 2005, he joined the Italian bank UniCredit for five years, where he notably headed the markets and investment banking division.

He was then entrusted with the CEO role at UBS, running Switzerland's biggest bank from 2011 to 2020.

In 2021, he became the chairman of the reinsurance giant Swiss Re.

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Call of duty

Ermotti is "made for the takeover of Credit Suisse" as he "used to playing the fireman role" and coming in to douse down trouble, said the Tribune de Geneve newspaper.

Back in 2020, Ermotti called the UBS chief executive role a dream job, but he will now find it "a much less comfortable chair", the daily said.

Newly appointed UBS CEO Sergio Ermotti leaves a press conference in Zurich on March 29th, 2023.

Newly appointed UBS CEO Sergio Ermotti leaves a press conference in Zurich on March 29th, 2023. (Photo by ARND WIEGMANN / AFP)

Amid fears of a growing banking crisis following the collapse of two banks in the United States, Credit Suisse's share price plummeted on March 15 as
investor confidence evaporated.

On March 19th, the Swiss government, the central bank and the financial regulators strongarmed UBS into buying Credit Suisse for $3.25 billion to prevent it from collapsing -- something which it was feared could have triggered a global banking meltdown.

The somewhat forced marriage needs stitching together carefully.

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This prompted the UBS board to turn once more to Ermotti, thinking him the "better pilot" than current Dutch CEO Ralph Hamers to navigate the new flight
path, said UBS chairman Colm Kelleher.

The quickfire merger of the two biggest banks in Switzerland triggered unease in the wealthy Alpine nation, with choice for customers and small businesses now seriously reduced.

While Kelleher admitted that Ermotti's Swiss nationality helped a little, he recalled that most of UBS's business is international, and said the decision to ask him back was dictated by the task ahead.

Ermotti will have to merge two institutions which were both among the 30 banks around the world deemed of global importance to the banking system -- in short, too big to fail.

Ermotti said he felt the "call of duty" to return and carry out the merger - which Kelleher admitted comes with "huge" execution risks.

Settling disputes

UBS came in for fierce criticism after its bailout by the state during the 2008 financial crisis.

But the losses in 2011 of a rogue trader who blew $2.3 billion in shady transactions was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Heads rolled and UBS turned to Ermotti, who was little-known within Switzerland, having made his career mainly in London, New York and Milan.

But he returned home after being overlooked for the CEO role at UniCredit.

He made cuts in the investment bank, refocused UBS on wealth management and settled the disputes accumulated by the bank, including the Libor and exchange rate manipulation scandals.

By Nathalie OLOF-ORS

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