Ermotti’s return is good news for UBS
The Credit Suisse deal may have merely accelerated Hamers’ anticipated departure.
Even before the Credit Suisse rescue, Ralph Hamers appeared on shaky ground at UBS. The surprise news of his exit and replacement as chief executive by a returning Sergio Ermotti shows how much UBS chairman Colm Kelleher needs a partner that he can trust to manage the immensely difficult integration with its Swiss arch-rival.
Hamers was always something of a leftfield hire by Kelleher’s predecessor, Axel Weber, in 2020. Kelleher’s decision to bring back Ermotti might also hint at what might have been had Ermotti passed on the CEO’s job to his fellow Italian-speaker, Andrea Orcel.
In the latter years of Orcel’s period as head of UBS’ investment bank in the 2010s, many saw him as the most obvious successor to Ermotti if Weber would agree (Orcel of course, is not Swiss, but he did spend more than a decade at UBS). In 2018, Orcel decided he stood a better chance of fulfilling his chief executive ambitions at Santander, until the latter’s chairman Ana Botín rowed back on hiring him. He is now CEO of UniCredit.
The most important doubts about Hamers’ role at UBS have always been his relative lack of experience in any of UBS's larger businesses
But what precipitated such an abrupt exit by Hamers?
It is not just that, unlike Ermotti, Hamers isn’t Swiss. That is, however, clearly more important now, given the extent to which the Swiss state forced and is underwriting this merger. Rather, the most important doubts about Hamers’ role at UBS have always been his relative lack of experience – as a longstanding former CEO of Dutch bank ING – in any of UBS's larger businesses, whether wealth management, investment banking or Swiss retail.
While at ING, Hamers did an excellent job of communicating the bank’s relative advance in digital banking, which was clearly the attraction of his hire for Weber. His successor at ING, Steven van Rijswijk, has however rowed back on parts of Hamers’ signature project to integrate its operations across Europe. Van Rijswijk has also sold ING’s online-only retail banks in France and elsewhere, businesses that previously seemed core to Hamers’ vision of an international digital retail player.
At UBS, a $1.4 billion acquisition of US robo-adviser Wealthfront announced in early 2022 seemed like exactly the sort of thing Hamers would gravitate towards. However, UBS backed out of the deal in September last year, several months after Kelleher’s arrival, signalling that the deal was too focused on mass-affluent clients rather than the top-level wealth management clients for which the Swiss firm is internationally known.
After UBS terminated its merger agreement with Wealthfront, the talk in the industry was that Hamers’ days as chief executive of UBS were numbered and that Kelleher was going over his head on the big decisions.
The Credit Suisse deal made it much more urgent to address this lack of harmony at the top.
Hamers has no experience in dealing with a large, complicated merger like this, something that would seem to be essential at the top of UBS as it faces a tricky integration with its former arch-rival.
The previous assumption was that Kelleher would take more of a hands-on role in the deal. Ermotti, meanwhile, is a relatively rare example of a chief executive who has left a longstanding role with his reputation largely untarnished. He oversaw the Swiss bank’s stellar recovery after 2011, a trajectory of success that was the exact opposite of Credit Suisse’ series of mistakes.
That outperformance was not entirely down to Ermotti, but his return should reassure investors that UBS can ultimately make a success of this deal.