29 December 2017

Curtain Rises for Julius Baer Chairman

Published by Finews.asia – 29th Dec 2017

Notoriously low-key Daniel Sauter was pushed into the spotlight at Julius Baer following the exit of its high-flying CEO. finews.asia profiles the enigmatic 60-year-old chairman.

Aloof, shrewd, inaccessible – the words used to describe Julius Baer chairman Daniel Sauter by associates who have known him for years show he remains an enigma even to those professionally closest to him.

For starters, Sauter didn’t grow up in the rarified world of Paradeplatz; instead, he is an interloper from Zug, the commodities trading hub roughly 30 kilometers south of Zurich. Sauter rose on the coattails of former U.S. fugitive Marc Rich at commodity giant Glencore, where the former foreign exchange trader worked his way through treasury and risk jobs. By 32, he was finance chief of the commodities giant.

Meteoric Rise

Five years later, at 37, he was running Xstrata, then not yet swallowed by Glencore. The move represented a meteoric career rise for the former apprentice of Gewerbebank (now Lienhardt & Partner) and Bank Leu trader.

«He’s a wheeler-dealer, not a big strategic thinker,» a long-time associate told finews.com. Opinionated and blunt, Sauter is more at home analyzing the minutiae of financial spreadsheets than he is philosophizing about the big-picture future of finance. Julius Baer, which manages 354 billion Swiss francs, is Switzerland’s third-largest private bank, after UBS and Credit Suisse.

His dominating personality has been on show behind the scenes in several settings: At Alpine Select, he paired with Michel Vukotic, a long-time Julius Baer trading executive, as one of Switzerland’s first activist shareholders. «We like to fight and go out on a limb,» Sauter told a journalist following one of the firm’s first raids.

Sika Ringleader

Behind the scenes at Sika, Sauter acted as ringleader of the opposition against French industrial firm Saint-Gobain’s planned 2.75 billion Swiss franc takeover of the Swiss family-controlled firm. His role as a director at Sika pits him against one of Switzerland’s wealthiest families – an odd stance for a private banker to take.

There, he has shown himself to be tough and uncompromising in marshalling the opposition behind the scenes, letting Sika chairman Paul Haelg fight the public battle. Sauter, one person involved in the takeover recounts, lacks the delicacy and diplomacy needed to deal with a wealthy family. The three-year-long saga is one of the biggest deadlocks in corporate history.

He has been chairman of Switzerland’s third-largest private bank for five years, but associates say he remains a trader and investment banker: more at home in the rough-and-tumble world of commodities than the white-glove world of private banking, where eloquence in manner and speech are prized. Sauter is practical, not theoretical; hands-on, not broad-brush strokes like UBS chairman Axel Weber

Handpicked Successor

No wonder: Sauter was 26 when he turned his back on banking to work for Rich in 1983, the same year the commodities trader was indicted in the U.S. for racketeering, tax evasion and Iran dealings. He didn’t return until ten years ago, quietly taking a board seat at Julius Baer. He remained virtually unknown even in Zurich banking circles until 2012, when Raymond Baer, one of the last descendants of the founding family to be operationally involved in the bank, handpicked Sauter as his successor.

Clearly, Sauter isn’t lacking confidence and chutzpah, though he remains a cipher to a wider Swiss public compared to peers like UBS’ Weber. He is fiercely passionate about politics and Switzerland’s place in the world, especially economically and as a business hub. While he encourages Julius Baer bankers to commit to engage in local politics, Sauter himself has rarely ventured into the public eye or granted interviews to financial press. His past ties to Glencore, one of the world’s most hated companies by consumers, makes him ill-suited to peddle policy.

Crisis Staved Off?

The 60-year-old bank chairman now faces his highest-profile challenge: fill the huge void left by Boris Collardi, the long-standing Julius Baer CEO whose imprimatur the bank carries today.

Sauter staved off the immediate crisis by heaving deputy CEO Bernhard Hodler, who is 58, into the top spot, while conceding that the board needs to find a long-term solution. The chairman had planned to step down next year, according to a close source familiar with the matter – which Julius Baer denies.

To be sure, Sauter needs to decide whether Hodler is a CEO for six to 12 months, or an era of three to four years, a veteran of the bank says. Just as he is stuck by his own weaponized rhetoric at Sika, Sauter is now tied to Julius Baer until he can show the CEO vacuum has been filled.