Friday, August 30 11:35:43
The finance chief of Zurich Insurance, Pierre Wauthier, wrote about chairman Josef Ackermann in his suicide note, the company confirmed, and pledged to investigate whether he had been put under undue pressure before his death.
Europe's third-largest insurer has been thrown into disarray since Wauthier was found dead at his family's lakefront home on Monday and the subsequent resignation of former Deutsche Bank boss Ackermann three days later.
Ackermann, one of Europe's top financiers, said Wauthier's family believed he shared responsibility for his death. He denied the allegation but said he was quitting to avoid damaging Zurich's reputation. He joined as chairman last year.
In a conference call, acting Chairman Tom de Swaan tried to reassure investors perplexed by the dramatic chain of events.
"The board sees it as its prime responsibility to look into the question as to whether there was undue pressure placed on our CFO," he said.
De Swaan said he was not aware of any inappropriate behaviour by Zurich's board members.
A person close to Ackermann said Wauthier's widow had accused him in the days following her husband's death of setting demanding targets that had put huge pressure on the 53-year-old father of two.
Wauthier's widow has declined to comment.
De Swaan confirmed that Wauthier, a company veteran who took over as finance chief in 2011, had left a suicide note in which he talked about Ackermann but declined to elaborate out of respect for the family.
Ackermann's abrupt departure crowns a period of considerable flux among Zurich Insurance's upper echelons. Its life insurance chief Kevin Hogan left two weeks ago to join AIG as its head of consumer insurance and former general insurance head Mario Greco quit a year ago to become head of Italian insurer Generali.
"The board is well aware of the need to strengthen the management team, and I consider this to be our top priority," said de Swaan, who was previously vice chairman. "Our focus is on ensuring the continued stability of the company."
Shares in the group, the worst performing insurance stock in Europe over the past six months, rose 1.62 percent after the conference call with investors noting that Ackermann's departure would not derail the group.
"Ackermann has not been there for a long time. He's not the architect of anything, and this is not a company in a big transition," said one Top 20 shareholder, who declined to be named.
The investor said Ackermann's openness about why he was resigning was actually reassuring.
"I was quite surprised at the statement and the references to Pierre's family. Normally, you see a holding statement," he said.
"In a funny way, though, what he said was better than if he just walked without saying anything, because then it would look like perhaps there was a hole or that something was wrong with the accounts. Not so much a cover-up but that something might have been found in the company."
The suicide scandal comes as Zurich Insurance tries to turn around its performance. Two weeks ago the group reported a 17 percent slide in first-half net profit and it said low investment returns meant it would miss some targets.
The company's shares have fallen nearly 11 percent in the past six months, compared with a near 10 percent increase in the European insurance index.
A former colleague of Wauthier's said there had been pressure within the company to turn around its share performance.
Ackermann, who had been expected to take on a more high-profile job in his native Switzerland than the chairmanship of an insurer, wanted to boost Zurich's market share and make it more dynamic.
Former colleagues of Ackermann say he does not court confrontation.
"I have never seen Ackermann lose his cool at a meeting. But if you were underperforming, he had a way of communicating it without having to spell it out in a way which was personal. You talked about the numbers, and they told you everything you needed to know," said one senior banker, who declined to be named.
At Zurich Insurance's headquarter, staff are reeling from Wauthier's death and the company has installed a telephone hotline for employees.
"It's a very difficult situation; Pierre had been here since 1996 and was held in very high esteem by his colleagues." said one staffer, who declined to be named. (Reuters)