(Bloomberg) -- UBS Group AG’s announcement of its CEO handoff had a line not usually seen in bank executive changes: it was for the good of the country.
That element shows how much scrutiny is on the combination of Switzerland’s two biggest banks, and how much the role of chief executive officer has changed in just a matter of days.
A Dutchman with little experience in wealth management or investment banking, Ralph Hamers was brought in more than two years ago to take the 160 year-old private banking behemoth into the digital age. But the government-brokered Swiss solution to the crisis at Credit Suisse Group AG suddenly left the 56 year-old UBS CEO in charge of restoring the reputation of an entire wealth management hub that had suffered a bruising hit. UBS instead turned to Hamers’ long-tenured predecessor, Sergio Ermotti, for that task.
“I am stepping aside in the interests of the new combined entity and its stakeholders, including Switzerland and its financial sector,” Hamers said in a statement Wednesday announcing his departure.
Over the course of a weekend, UBS went from a stable bank aimed at increasing capital returns to shareholders to one of the most complex integration tasks in global finance. The firm is aiming to cut more than $8 billion of costs over the next few years, slashing thousands of jobs and offloading billions worth of risky assets it doesn’t want from its Swiss rival.
At a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday, Chairman Colm Kelleher said the UBS board simply “felt we had a better horse with Sergio.”
Hamers was credited with transforming Dutch lender ING Groep NV from financial crisis victim into digital banking pioneer. A surprise pick for many at UBS at the time, he struggled to put his stamp on a bank that was already among the most successful globally. His first full year passed with mainly cosmetic fixes like collapsing hierarchies or revamping tech teams, and his initial strategic update in 2021 got a lukewarm reception from analysts and staff.
He went on ruffle the feathers of some UBS bankers by seeking to embrace a broader base of clients, even if it meant pushing lower-margin, automated products that aren’t the hallmark of UBS’s personalized offerings. A key pillar of that plan, the acquisition of US robo-adviser Wealthfront, fell through last year in a major setback for Hamers.
Kelleher said at the time that the bank would backtrack from trying to serve the mass affluent and shift to targeting the very richest clients in the US. Hamers, who was brought in by Kelleher’s predecessor Axel Weber, had pitched the Wealthfront deal as a cornerstone of his plan to grow the US business.
Still, UBS acknowledged it benefited from priorities Hamers set. The firm said on Wednesday that its focus on digital and sustainability issues are “important differentiators for our clients.” Hamers was “instrumental” to pulling off the deal with Credit Suisse, according to the bank.
“I am of course sorry to leave UBS,” Hamers said. “But circumstances have changed in ways that none of us expected.”
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.