In another life, Ulrich Körner would be best known for trying to save a different Swiss bank from collapse.
In September 2011, UBS was in disarray after rogue trader Kweku Adoboli lost $2.3bn and chief executive Oswald Grübel was forced to resign. As the board scrambled to find a replacement, early press release drafts had a place holder for the new CEO’s name: “UK”. But Körner, then chief operating officer and deputy CEO, refused to take an interim role — he wanted the bank’s full backing. The board demurred and the draft was swiftly updated with new initials: “SPE”. Sergio Pietro Ermotti seized his chance and ran the lender for a largely successful decade.
Eleven years later, the reserved Körner has another chance to stabilise a national institution facing an existential crisis: this time UBS’s fierce rival Credit Suisse. It has been a rocky start. During his eight-month tenure, the shares have plunged 63 per cent as the bank reported a second consecutive multibillion loss and panicked customers withdrew SFr111bn ($121bn) of funds.
Credit Suisse hit a nadir this week when its largest investor ruled out providing any more capital, which turbocharged market contagion from the failure of Silicon Valley Bank. Its debt slid to distressed prices and it was forced to petition the Swiss National Bank for a SFr50bn lifeline. But even a backstop from their fabled bullion stockpiles failed to stem the bleeding. Speculation swirls about bankruptcy, break-up or a state-arranged rescue by UBS. “Status quo is no longer an option,” says JPMorgan analyst Kian Abouhossein.
Is Körner — described by one colleague as “unflappable, despite having the most stressful job in banking” and by another as “having a preternatural ability to absorb pressure” — the right man to hold the bank together?
“Uli may come across as an introverted person, but he’s very likeable one on one, smart and intelligent, and in many cases those are the best people in a crisis,” says Ermotti, former chief executive of UBS. “But at the time he took the job, it was like a firefighter being asked to rush into a burning building. It is extremely challenging and difficult to turn this around.”
Körner, 60, was born in Germany but went to a Swiss school and holds dual citizenship. He started his career at Price Waterhouse before joining McKinsey. In 1998, he joined Credit Suisse, rising to become head of Switzerland.
“He was a very quiet individual, kept…
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