ING chief Ralph Hamers is surprise pick for new UBS CEO

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – UBS Group named ING Groep’s Ralph Hamers as its next chief executive officer, a surprise pick that lands a Dutch retail banking veteran atop the world’s largest wealth manager.

He will succeed Sergio Ermotti, one of Europe’s longest-serving bank CEOs, starting Nov 1, the Zurich-based firm said on Wednesday (Feb 19).

Hamers, 53, is a relative outsider to the rarefied world of Swiss wealth management, joining UBS after a nearly three-decade career at ING. He climbed the ranks through a series of roles including head of the Dutch and Belgian banking units and the firm’s global commercial lending division. He’s been CEO since 2013, leading a digital banking push in an effort to win customers while trimming costs.

Hamers “is the person to lead UBS’s continued transformation and build upon its successful strategy,” Chairman Axel Weber said in a statement. He’s “a seasoned and well-respected banker with proven expertise in digital transformation.”

More recently, Hamers presided over a turbulent time at the Dutch lender, after ING got caught up in a money-laundering scandal involving Russian dirty money. ING agreed in 2018 to pay about US$900 million (S$1.26 billion) to settle a Dutch investigation into corrupt practices by former clients. Last year, the Bank of Italy ordered the lender to stop taking on new customers in that country after it found shortcomings in money-laundering checks.

“The appointment is definitely a surprise,” said Rahul Sen, the global leader of wealth management and private banking at Boyden Executive Search. Hamers will probably “keep the ship straight and try to not upset the apple cart too much. What we have seen of ING over the past 10 years – the way they’ve come back to profitability is by reducing costs.”

UBS, like many of its European peers, has dialed back its ambitions amid negative interest rates and muted client activity. Ermotti recently cut the bank’s financial targets for a second time in as many years against that backdrop.

Ermotti’s final year leading UBS was marred by huge legal fines, questions about succession planning and a deepening slump in its share price. Ermotti and Weber last year signaled that the firm had started planning for succession after a series of high-profile executives left the firm.

The firm in October brought in Credit Suisse Group star wealth manager Iqbal Khan, who was widely seen as an eventual contender for the top role. But Khan’s run-in with his former boss, then-Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam – which became tabloid fodder in Zurich – dimmed his standing with UBS board members, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ermotti, who is in his ninth year in the job, is part of a Europe-wide trend of bank executives handing over the reins to the next generation. Lenders including Societe Generale and HSBC Holdings are among those also looking for replacements and Credit Suisse just replaced Thiam.

At ING, Hamers has been trying to cushion the blow of negative interest rates – which are particularly damaging for a lender that gets two-thirds of its revenue from retail banking – by adding millions of customers and moving more to digital platforms. He’ll depart the Dutch bank at the end of June.

Hamers lost his annual bonus for 2018 after the firm was hit with one of the biggest fines ever for a Dutch bank in a criminal case. ING has paid him about US$2.16 million annually in recent years, including salary and a relatively small variable award, regulatory filings show.

By comparison, Ermotti received about US$9 million in compensation in 2012, his first full year leading the bank, and roughly US$14 million for 2018.

Hamers has been a frequent target of Dutch politicians, newspaper ­columnists, and financial activists – one of whom has sought to have him jailed for his alleged role in the bank’s money laundering issues, an accusation that ING has rejected.

Still, Hamers has shown the ability to boost revenue amid the headwinds. ING’s shares have climbed 20 per cent in his tenure, compared with a 20 per cent drop for the Stoxx 600 Banks Index and a 30 per cent decline for UBS in that time. ING shares tumbled on Wednesday after the bank delayed a well-subscribed sale of risky dollar bonds because “information has come to the issuer, that needs to be studied.”

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