Banker defections pose challenge for Credit Suisse's Thiam

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Swiss bank Credit Suisse CEO Thiam waits for a news conference after the Swiss Global Digital Summit in Geneva© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Swiss bank Credit Suisse CEO Thiam waits for a news conference after the Swiss Global Digital Summit in Geneva

By Sumeet Chatterjee and Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi

ZURICH/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The announcement by Julius Baer this week that it had hired five senior bankers from Credit Suisse (SIX:) underscores the challenge facing Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam as he seeks to reassure staff and investors in the wake of a spying scandal.

Preventing staff defections was at the heart of a decision by Credit Suisse to put former international wealth-management head Iqbal Khan under surveillance. But that move — which spilled into the open when Khan had an altercation on the street with the men who were trailing him — has by the bank’s own admission caused severe reputational damage.

The team joining Julius Baer had left Credit Suisse before the espionage scandal broke but the debacle and the bank’s efforts to draw a line under it have enthused rivals to accelerate their poaching efforts, headhunters say.

Wealth managers are the lifeblood of private banking, one of the fastest growing businesses in the global financial sector, holding the keys to close client relationships worth millions or billions in assets.

“A lot of people are uncertain about…the (bank’s) ability to attract new bankers,” said Rahul Sen, a London-based global leader for private banking at headhunter Boyden. “They botched up the entire Iqbal Khan situation.”

Credit Suisse declined to comment on the staff departures and any measures it was deploying to retain top talent.

Credit Suisse’s probe into the spying scandal, which exonerated Thiam of any involvement, has failed to quell staff disquiet, particularly when it emerged Thiam and Khan had a personal dispute which prompted the former wealth management chief to leave.

Under Khan’s watch, profits at Credit Suisse’s wealth management business had more than doubled. He joined arch-rival UBS as co-head of the wealth management business this week.

Credit Suisse’s investigation into its surveillance of Khan concluded that Chief Operating Officer Pierre-Olivier Bouee had initiated it to see if Khan was trying to poach former colleagues to join him at UBS.

No evidence emerged that he had attempted to take employees or clients from Credit Suisse.

Since his departure, however, others have pounced and while job-hopping is common in the private banking sector, the exit of senior managers adds to the pressure on Thiam, who has to deal with tough market conditions and continue to manage costs after seeing through a three-year restructuring period.

Recent losses include a Dubai-based senior private banker who is expected to take at least three team members to a rival, and a Hong Kong-based China banker who will be taking along a dozen of his colleagues at Credit Suisse to a European peer next month, people with knowledge of the matter said. Another senior banker, who managed about 700 million Swiss francs ($701 million) of client assets in Portugal and Brazil, left last week and will be joining a rival toward the end of this year, one of the people said.

Britain’s Barclays (LON:) and Julius Baer hired a total of 14 bankers from Credit Suisse’s International Wealth Management business, they announced last month.

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