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OPINION

Anything, everything and Citibank

Some say Fischer is a contender to succeed Oswald Grubel as head of Credit Suisse. I have only one question: “Is Lenny hunky?”


My Abigail with Attitude awards for 2006 proved controversial. “I can’t believe you named Clara Furse as the financial figure with the largest testicles,” a senior banker sniffed. For me, this was an obvious choice. I love the way, as each predator gallops over the horizon waving wads of cash, she snaps: “Go away, you silly little man. I am not for sale.” It is an irony of modern business that enormous companies are closely associated with the personality of their leaders. Today, personal branding is as important as corporate branding. Thousands of employees may contribute to a company’s success, but it’s the chief executive who will make the difference. And that’s why we are entitled to scrutinise them and they are entitled to demand significant compensation for success.


My award for hunkiest regional CEO also caused discussion. This coveted award was won by the engaging Michael Philipp of Credit Suisse. Shortly after the article was published, Philipp moved along. Leonhard Fischer will inherit his job. “This is all your doing,” wailed one contact. “You should have known that Credit Suisse is a staid Swiss institution where attractiveness is not a required attribute.” “Nonsense,” I retorted. “Sex appeal is everything nowadays.”


Michael Philipp will become chairman of Credit Suisse’s Europe, Middle East and Africa region. Lenny Fischer, who was running the group’s insurance subsidiary Winterthur, takes over as chief executive, EMEA, in March. Some say Fischer is a contender to succeed Oswald Grubel as head of Credit Suisse. I have only one question: “Is Lenny hunky?” The taste of tomatoes...

Talking of chief executives who make a difference, Stuart Rose, head of British retailer Marks & Spencer, announced good results last week. There were numerous press articles hailing him as a hero for turning around a high street laggard. “He’s still going on about you and the tomatoes,” a banker friend chortled after reading a profile of Rose in The Times newspaper. Devoted readers will remember that I accosted Mr Rose in Le Caprice restaurant last March and complained about the tastelessness of the tomatoes at my local M&S. Rose was charm personified. He ignored the fact that I had interrupted a private dinner and was ignorant of the fact that I was a journalist. He promised to undertake a tasting of the tomatoes and come back to me. Think about it carefully. Would your chief executive have behaved in such a graceful fashion? The tasting took place and I was informed of the results.

And that was where I missed a chance. Never underestimate the person who controls the controls. Having experienced Rose’s behaviour, I should immediately have bought M&S shares. At the time of the approach, the shares were languishing at £5.20. Today they are bobbing around at £6.80 – a 30% increase in 10 months. “The way you do anything is the way you do everything,” one of my professors said. Stuart Rose and the tomato tasting illustrates his point.

...and dissatisfaction

Brand is one of the most important assets of any business. However, if one part of the brand deteriorates, the whole is affected. This is an enormous challenge for many global financial institutions, which appear in different guises to their customers. Often the hardest bit to get right is retail banking: probably because the margins are low, the client is treated as a necessary evil.

I am a retail client of Citibank in France. Several years ago I lived in Paris and I opened a current account with Citibank. I should write that I used to be a retail client of Citibank in France because this month Citibank is closing its retail operations in France.

Last October I received a missive from Eric Romanoff, whose title is France business manager, informing me that Citi had changed its strategy and would no longer be providing retail banking in France. In November, I received another Citibank communication. Arcane instructions filled four pages with ant–sized type. I wanted to defenestrate. Consider the following paragraph: “Reminder of procedure for preparing a list of outstanding cheques: take all your chequebook stubs for the past year + 8 days, as this is how long cheques remain valid in France. Match them against payments listed on your account statements over the same period of time. Once you have cross-checked all the cheques you issued over that period, the total sum of the cheques not shown on your account statements is the amount you should leave in your account to ensure a cheque will not be rejected. Failure to do so shall lead to a negative reporting to the Banque de France and your cheques will be rejected.”

In despair, I rang my Citibank conseiller (adviser). Over the last three years, my Citibank advisers have changed with such rapidity that I feel like a prostitute in a brothel. My conseiller told me to send a fax stating where the proceeds of my account should be sent. She then had to call me back to repeat the instructions. As both of us spend a lot of time on the phone, making the connection took all morning. Is Citibank going to compensate me for the time I have wasted on this matter? What do you think?

I have yet to receive an apology for the inconvenience that Citibank’s change of strategy has caused me. I note from the website that Citibank has 6,000 retail clients in France, (although a Citibank spokesperson claimed that the correct figure was 3,000). I assume that means there are at least 3,000 individuals who will never deal with Citibank again, anywhere in the world. And if you follow my professor’s maxim that the way you do anything is the way you do everything, what does my experience say about the rest of the Citigroup empire?

Global, local

Perhaps the adjectives global and local were not meant to be combined. However, the world-wide web is the epitome of the global local concept. And I am always thrilled when I receive emails from readers in far-flung places. Several New Zealand subscribers have contacted me recently. “Hilarious,” wrote one. “You know you’re doing something right when you read the Abigail column,” quipped another. But last week’s story on those who move seamlessly between London and Los Angeles bemused a Latin American reader. “Who’s Becky Sharp? What’s a minx?” he queried.

The phrase “lost in translation” came to mind and I chided myself for being culturally out of step with my audience. But I was totally in step with the news agenda. The day my column was published, it was announced that David Beckham and his wife Victoria (now dubbed Dosh and Bucks) will move to Los Angeles. Beckham has signed a five year contract worth £128 million with the American soccer club, LA Galaxy. “Farewell football, hello Hollywood,” trumpeted one British headline. All the themes I have discussed in recent columns collide: reinvention, the global village – and don’t even get me started on brand Beckham!

Next week: Someone soars skywards. Please send news and views to abigail@euromoney.com

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