He is considered a solid, serious and experienced creator, but not a phony. The new CS Chairman of the Board of Directors must succeed where his two predecessors failed: lead the ship into calmer waters. He has a number of good qualifications.
After the rather unlucky Zurich lawyer Urs Rohner, the London banker António Horta-Osório is now also failing at Credit Suisse (CS). After his resignation, which was not exactly voluntary, the Board of Directors decided to entrust the economist and financial expert Axel P. Lehmann, who grew up in Bern, with the task of leading the bank back into calm waters as Chairman of the Board. His two predecessors ultimately failed, but Lehmann at least has good prerequisites to make up for their deficits.
Lehmann, who has only been a member of the CS board of directors since last autumn, is not an outsider in the industry. He can build on many years of experience at the Zurich Insurance Group and UBS. Down-to-earth and solid, always pleasant and friendly to deal with, internationally experienced, technically very competent without making a fuss about it: For decades, Axel P. Lehmann has not been seen as a phony in the Swiss financial sector, but as a safe bet.
A prudent risk manager
The doctor of economics and finance specialist began his career at the University of St. Gallen, where he also habilitated and worked at the Institute for Insurance Economics. From the start, the focus was on managing risk.
In the private sector, the 62-year-old worked for two decades from 1996 in various managerial positions at the insurer Zurich. He spent some years in the USA and the last seven years as Chief Risk Officer in the group management in Zurich. Lehmann was not just a risk manager “at heart”, but also on paper. As such, he was elected to the UBS Board of Directors in 2009.
In 2015, Lehmann joined the Executive Board of UBS as Chief Operation Officer (COO) under CEO Sergio Ermotti. Even at Zurich, he had repeatedly dealt with organizational and IT issues. In 2018 he then took over the management of UBS Switzerland for three years, where he promoted decentralization and digitization, among other things. For Credit Suisse, which is subject to rapid structural change in the industry, these issues are of fundamental importance; and there is catch-up potential.
Lehmann would probably have been available as Ermotti’s successor. But the UBS board of directors opted for an external solution in the form of the Dutch digitizer Ralph Hamers, which promised to breathe new life into the quite successful Swiss bank, which some shareholders had already become too “bored” for. Lehmann then left UBS in the summer of 2021 in order to be able to use his executive experience as a member of the board of directors in the Swiss financial sector. In addition to his duties as head of the risk committee at CS, he was scheduled to become chairman of the board of directors of Swiss Helvetia Insurance from 2023.
Commitment to the Swiss financial center
Now, quite unexpectedly, his experience is in demand faster and differently than he himself had expected, right at the top of the second major Swiss bank. As he says himself, Lehmann had little time to think about it, but he had given it serious thought. “I would like to make a contribution to steering the bank back into calm waters,” says Lehmann. “It takes two strong banks in this financial center.” Ex post, of course, the question arises as to why Lehmann was not appointed as Urs Rohner’s successor a year ago. But the Board of Directors saw Horta-Osório as the ideal turnaround manager, and Lehmann was still tied to UBS at the time.
It speaks for the Swiss that he is now concentrating on the chairmanship of the CS and does not want to take on the one at Helvetia. Lehmann will now have to show that he actually has the assertiveness to get Credit Suisse moving again. He will also have to make further personnel decisions to ensure that changes will not only be talked about in the future, but that they will actually be lived in the management and implemented throughout the group.
The fact that Lehmann has a Swiss passport is of course not a proof of performance per se. But his good network, modesty and sense for the local public should help him to avoid missteps that internal opponents could exploit. At the same time, he also knows from his own experience which cultural differences characterize the financial sector in the USA. This is important because CS has been suffering from a complex relationship between its representatives in Zurich and New York for decades.
More clarity and coherence
Even if the new Chairman of the Board of Directors claims that he wants to stick to the strategy that was only decided last November, sooner or later he will have to clarify whether CS primarily wants to be a Swiss-style wealth management bank or an international heavyweight the universal banks, which can also compete with the Americans in investment banking. For the time being, CS is moving three billion (of its more than 50 billion) francs in capital from its investment bank to asset management.
In addition to risk management, Lehmann also has another cultural problem to deal with. The fact that Horta-Osório’s breaches of the rules became public knowledge so quickly that the bank danced in a ball about the publication of the findings from the Greensill report: all of this probably has something to do with bitter power struggles within CS. Axel Lehmann will act as an integrator here and will have to ensure calm – if necessary also with drastic personnel decisions.
And finally, Lehmann is faced with the task of quickly rallying the major international shareholders of CS behind him. Many had placed great hopes in Horta-Osório because, as CEO of Lloyds Bank in Great Britain, he had already managed to reverse the trend at a bank during a crisis. Lehmann lets it be known that he wants to be successful with continuous work and that he needs some time for that. It remains to be hoped that the investors will grant this to him and the bank.