Ackermann feared suicide would thwart Zurich performance drive

Sun Sep 1, 2013 4:50pm EDT
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By Edward Taylor and Philipp Halstrick

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Josef Ackermann resigned because he saw the suicide of Zurich Insurance Group's finance chief curbing his ability to drive through change to revive profits, a source close to the former chairman said on Sunday.

Top managers at the Swiss insurer, now battling to reassure investors, told Reuters they were puzzled by Ackermann's abrupt departure after less than 18 months in the job and by his explanation that Pierre Wauthier's family blamed him for driving the Zurich CFO to kill himself - an allegation Ackermann denied.

Some speculated on other possible motives for Thursday's resignation, which surprised many who have followed the dynamic career of the 65-year-old Ackermann since he rose to prominence and power in turning around Germany's Deutsche Bank.

But the person familiar with Ackermann's reasons dismissed talk of him using Wauthier's death a week ago as an excuse for a move motivated by other reasons - such as personal legal headaches or an existing disillusion with a company in which some say the banker was lost in the alien culture of insurance.

"He was not satisfied with Zurich's performance, which is why he campaigned to change this," the source said.

"When the CFO took his life, it became clear to him that he could not keep up this pressure. Because of this, the chances of succeeding were called into question. That's why he resigned."

Wauthier, 53, explicitly blamed Ackermann for putting him under pressure in a suicide note, his family told the company - an allegation Ackermann called "unfounded" as he announced he was leaving to spare the reputation of Europe's No.3 insurer.

The remarks on Sunday point to more fundamental concerns about Zurich's business strategy, with Ackermann apparently unhappy about management performance but realizing that being seen to pressure executives for improvement was unlikely to be an option in the wake of Wauthier's death.   Continued...

Josef Ackermann, chairman of Zurich Insurance Group, answers questions after delivering the opening speech of the Reuters Global Wealth Management Summit in Geneva June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud