Josef Ackermann’s abrupt resignation as chairman of Zurich Insurance Group AG days after the suspected suicide of its finance chief sent the insurer’s shares tumbling and left investors grasping for answers.
The stock fell 2.5 percent yesterday, extending the decline over the past three days to 6 percent and erasing 2.2 billion francs of the company’s market value since Switzerland’s biggest insurer said on Aug. 26 that Chief Financial Officer Pierre Wauthier was found dead in his home.
Ackermann, the former chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank AG, said he was stepping down after members of Wauthier’s family accused him of sharing responsibility for the death. The 65-year-old Ackermann didn’t describe the allegations, which he said were “unfounded,” and Zurich Insurance declined to elaborate. The company scheduled a conference call with CEO Martin Senn and acting Chairman Tom de Swaan today.
“Investors don’t like the uncertainty that has been created,” said Ben Cohen, an analyst at Cannaccord Genuity in London with a hold recommendation on Zurich Insurance shares. “The market expressed its discomfort. It is negative that they lost both their CFO and chairman.”
Swiss-born Ackermann became one of Europe’s most prominent financial figures during his decade at the helm of Deutsche Bank, transforming the Frankfurt-based firm into a top-tier investment bank. He also served as chairman of the International Institute of Finance, a global industry lobby group, and for years was a fixture at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He became chairman at Zurich Insurance last year after stepping down from Deutsche Bank.
Ackermann wanted to shake things up at the insurance company, which he thought was lagging behind competitors in some regions, Swiss paper 20 Minuten reported yesterday, citing an unidentified person who has known Ackermann for years. The chairman was putting pressure on the management, it said.
The insurer said Aug. 15 that floods in central Europe and tornadoes in the U.S., as well as lower investment income, contributed to a 27 percent drop in second-quarter net income to $789 million, missing analysts’ estimates. The stock fell 0.8 percent over the past 12 months, while the 30-company Bloomberg Europe 500 Insurance Index jumped 28 percent.
The insurer has lost other senior managers in the past 15 months. Ann Haugh, the chief of staff, left Aug. 20, while Kevin Hogan, who headed the global life business, quit earlier this month to join New York-based American International Group Inc. Mario Greco, who led general insurance, left in June 2012 to become CEO of Assicurazioni Generali SpA.
“I have reasons to believe that the family is of the opinion that I should take my share of responsibility, as unfounded as any allegations might be,” Ackermann said in the statement yesterday. “To avoid any damage to Zurich’s reputation, I have decided to resign from all my board functions with immediate effect.”
Senn told Swiss public broadcaster SRF in an interview yesterday that the insurer hadn’t “seen any conflicts that could or should have led to such a death.” Fabienne Wauthier, the victim’s widow, said she was advised not to comment further when reached by Bloomberg News.
“Everybody has questions, and there’s a lot of speculation,” said Peter Eliot, a London-based analyst at Berenberg Bank with a buy recommendation on the stock. “It is unlikely that investors will have all their questions answered. Unless they can say something concrete, then it will be tough for the company to put market fears completely to rest.”
Wauthier, 53, a father of two, had been appointed chief financial officer at Switzerland’s largest insurer in September 2011 after previous roles as group treasurer and head of centrally managed businesses. A citizen of Britain and France, he held a master’s degree in international finance from l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales and a master’s degree in private law from the Sorbonne University in Paris. He worked for two years at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and joined JPMorgan Chase & Co. in 1985, before moving to Zurich Insurance in 1996.
Colleagues and friends of Wauthier told Bloomberg News that his suicide came as a surprise and that he was viewed as a competent finance chief and as honest, diligent and hard working.
He lived in Walchwil, a municipality with just over 3,500 residents on the eastern shore of Lake Zug. The area, about a 45-minute drive from Zurich, describes itself as an “oasis of relaxation.” His family wasn’t at home when he died.
An autopsy to determine the cause of death “clearly pointed to a suicide,” Marcel Schlatter, a police spokesman for the canton of Zug, said on Aug. 27.
The manner of Ackermann’s departure threatens to throw a shadow over his career, which has had ups and downs. After joining Deutsche Bank in 1996 as head of credit risks, he helped transform a German-focused institution into a global banking franchise and raised its profile in underwriting debt and advising mergers and acquisitions. He became co-head of investment banking in 1998, taking sole responsibility for the unit months later, and was promoted to CEO in 2002.
He led the bank to record profit in 2007 and advised German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European officials during the financial crisis, before overseeing the company’s first annual loss since World War II a year later.
Ackermann drew ire in Germany in 2004 when he was photographed flashing a victory sign during a trial to determine whether it was unlawful for him and five Mannesmann AG co- defendants to approve more than 57 million euros of bonuses for executives at the German mobile-phone company following its 154 billion-euro takeover by Vodafone AirTouch Plc.
The nation’s first criminal probe into excessive executive pay was settled in November 2006 for 5.8 million euros. Ackermann, who wasn’t accused of making any personal gain, paid 3.2 million euros.
A biography of him, titled “Spaete Reue” or “Late Remorse,” is scheduled to be published next month.
Ackermann, a deputy chairman of Siemens AG, Europe’s biggest engineering company, didn’t inform Siemens’ board or senior management before announcing his departure from Zurich, and hasn’t discussed the circumstances with Siemens, a person with knowledge of the matter said.
If facts emerge that he was in any way responsible for the death of Wauthier, by threatening him, for example, then the matter will be discussed by the Siemens board, said the person, asking not to be identified because the matter is private.
Ackermann also is on the boards of Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Investor AB.
“Right now, we’re left in the dark a little bit and obviously people will start conjecturing,” Jody Lurie, a corporate credit analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview. “It begs some questions of what exactly went on.”
With assistance from Oliver Suess in Munich , Angela Maier in Munich, Aaron Kirchfeld in London and Zeke Faux in New York. Editors: Frank Connelly, David Scheer