Terrible Corporate Culture Kills Yet Another Wall Street Darling — More to Come
"It is only when the tide goes down that you see who's been swimming naked," legendary investor Warren Buffet once said.
The very first time I heard of Wall Street dates back to the evening of the thirty-first of December in 2007. I was then a high school kid apprentice at the reception desk of Chez Lando Hotel in Kigali. It was an opportunity that I cherished dearly every school break because it allowed me to brush off my English. On this very evening, I was in rush to leave my post since it was New Year's eve. I wanted to go celebrate the new year with friends. Then a new hotel guest pulled up, just about the time I was getting ready to leave. I checked him in as usual. When he arrived in his room, he called reception inquiring about a safe deposit because he had some valuables he wanted to keep safe. I told him we can keep them in our reception lock box for the night and have them transferred to management the next morning. He came back holding a watch with some foreign currency. It was not a Rolex, as I was familiar with Rolexes.
But to ensure him that his valuables were safe, I made a comment saying, "We have kept even Rolex watches before.” He responded to my statement by saying, "Young man, this is well more valuable than your typical Rolex." It was a Patek Philippe, a fine watch brand that I had never heard of before. So, we started canvassing. I asked him what was his profession. He said, with deep a sense of pride in his voice, he was a banker. I was not impressed, however, for I knew a few bankers myself. In fact, I had a couple of bank accounts, one held at Ecobank, and another at Banque Populaire. So, with two bank accounts under my belt, at just seventeen years old, you could not tell me anything then.
Instead, I had an admiration for architects. I wanted to become one. Not only did I admire their element of building things, but I also loved the creative and artistic substance of architecture. So, this American banker, who was making a big fuss about a watch brand that I had never heard of was becoming, if anything, a nuisance — especially since I was in such a hurry to leave. "Have you heard of Wall Street?" he asked me as I was wrapping up property receipt paperwork. Before I got to respond, he grabbed a sticky note (his own) and jotted down "Merrill Lynch/Wall Street" on it. He told me to look it up as he exited the room.
A few days later, I sure did. Only to find that it was not the kind of deposit-collecting and car-loan-issuing kind of banking I was familiar with. This one was one of the major global investment banking and wealth management powerhouses. It was one of American global banking pride. I started reading about Merril Lynch whenever I would d get a chance. Then it failed, just two years later, in 2009. When I moved to the United States the same year, the once global banking hotshot had just been swallowed by its rather conservative, big cousin Bank of America. Merrill Lynch had been on the verge of being wiped out and needed a white knight to save it. It had just been repackaged into a mute subsidiary. The failure of Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and others was blamed, then, on illiquidity and on being collateral victims of the 2008 housing crisis. But my position is that it boiled down to greed and irresponsible risk-taking culture. Yes, it is culture; and bad culture ultimately kills. It always does.
Moving on, in the few years that followed my arrival, I got busy minding other businesses while still following Wall Street Who's Who on a daily basis. I had moved on from my prior passion for architecture as a career choice, for I had found other, more interesting fields where my maths aptitude — combined with my sheer will — would be more advantageous. Becoming an actuary became my only pursuit; until I quickly transitioned into financial markets.
In 2015, after almost three years of working on Wall Street, I still had not found a new darling to emulate. Merrill had lost the glow. Then along came the one. Yet another investment banking powerhouse. This one was not one of the usual American suspects. It wasn't Goldman Sachs, whose headquarters were right across the street from mine, nor was it JP Morgan, whose C.E.O. I followed religiously. It was from far away, across the Atlantic. It was the bank proudly bearing the name of its motherland. And the name was Credit Suisse. What made them special to me was neither the nature of their business (we all do the same kinds of stuff, pretty much) nor was it their culture. Definitely not their culture. It was, however, the man who had just taken over the helm of the bank: Mr. Tidjane Thiam.
Through this man, I saw my future self. I admired him so much that I almost idolised him. Not only I could draw some similarities in career trajectories, but he also embodied what I wanted to become. His background, too, somehow, had an element of similarity to mine. He was a migrant from Ivory Coast, trained in France's finest where he had majored in engineering (not a typical business major for a future banker of his calibre). He had had an impressive career in consulting, insurance, and pension business up to becoming the C.E.O. of Prudential PLC, a British insurance and financial services giant. Now at the helm of Credit Suisse? In him, not only I saw a career I wanted to emulate, I saw a father figure I never had. As for me, though I had just started my career path a few years prior, and was nowhere close in comparison, I envisioned a similar trajectory. Myself a migrant from Rwanda in the U.S., I had, and was being, trained with some of the finest in the field. I had majored in Actuarial and Mathematical Science (not a typical business major for a future banker of the calibre I wanted to become). I had had a short stint in the pension business as an actuary before I quickly transitioned to Wall Street. He spoke French and English, and so did I. I watched every, every interview he's ever given, especially the ones at Davos World Economic Forums, and I read every article he's ever been mentioned in that I could find.
I admired the man so much that I wrote two academic papers about him. One paper was a project for my corporate management course, in which I praised him for his impeccable time at Prudential. Another one was for my crisis management class at Fordham University School of Law. In this second one, I criticised him, with passion, for his handling of the internal power struggle at Credit Suisse. I was not impressed by my idol's management of the issue such that, in the paper, I went all in. I got an A-grade on the paper. However, he still remains my favourite banker, to date.
Time flew by, 2020 came, the man I admired left the bank, and a few months later, I, myself, went away for my own "reality check" as my New York federal judge put it at sentencing.
Now my other banking darling, who's been in news lately due to scandals after scandal, and crisis after crisis, and was on the brink of collapse, just got swallowed by its bigger competitor cousin, the Swiss giant UBS. But what went wrong? In 2008, Merrill Lynch failed in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Not an excuse but the financial markets climate was not conducive then. But today? While we are still experiencing the longest bull markets in recent history; a global bank fails? Experts (in suits, and dull) will come up with several hypotheses in the coming few days and months, but in my sober opinion, I say that it is the Swiss own culture that just brought its name-bearing bank down to its knees.
The Swiss, for a very long time, have been the obvious destination for global wealth. If money was not going to New York or London, money moved to Switzerland. UBS would capture a big share, but Credit Suisse would equally thrive. Then cultural evolution and progressive globalisation happened. The Swiss failed to notice and did not embrace, if they did, the rise of new money therefore a need for new ways of client services since the nineteen-nineties. They kept doing things the old-fashion way, the Swiss way. They failed to see the rise of new and progressive financial hubs, slowly closing in and breathing down their necks. They did not envision Hong Kong, Singapore, and even Dubai happening this fast. Then, old money, the tide, which had sustained them for a long time slowed down. As Buffet puts it, the tide went down and naked swimmers started to manifest. Obviously, Credit Suisse's failure is, in part, a consequence of other internal management issues dating back for many years, but even those issues boil down to close-minded corporate culture.
Looking ahead, it is not just the Swiss who may fall prey to slow or limited cultural evolution. It is anyone, anywhere, who shall fail to evolve with time, whether in finance, politics, or environmental strategies and policies; to name a few. Humankind has always evolved, and so did our ways of doing business. Those who failed to keep up went extinct.
As new financial hubs start up and strive to emerge on a global scene in the foreseeable future, especially from a once-ignored Africa (notably Casablanca and Kigali), I hope I live long enough to tell who else shall fall victim to limited or slow-paced cultural embracement. Yes, unfortunately, there is always someone.
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