In another life, Ulrich Körner would be best known for trying to save a different Swiss bank from collapse.
In September 2011, UBS was in disarray after rogue trader Kweku Adoboli lost $2.3bn and chief executive Oswald Grübel was forced to resign. As the board scrambled to find a replacement, early press release drafts had a place holder for the new CEO’s name: “UK”. But Körner, then chief operating officer and deputy CEO, refused to take an interim role — he wanted the bank’s full backing. The board demurred and the draft was swiftly updated with new initials: “SPE”. Sergio Pietro Ermotti seized his chance and ran the lender for a largely successful decade.
Eleven years later, the reserved Körner has another chance to stabilise a national institution facing an existential crisis: this time UBS’s fierce rival Credit Suisse. It has been a rocky start. During his eight-month tenure, the shares have plunged 63 per cent as the bank reported a second consecutive multibillion loss and panicked customers withdrew SFr111bn ($121bn) of funds.
Credit Suisse hit a nadir this week when its largest investor ruled out providing any more capital, which turbocharged market contagion from the failure of Silicon Valley Bank. Its debt slid to distressed prices and it was forced to petition the Swiss National Bank for a SFr50bn lifeline. But even a backstop from their fabled bullion stockpiles failed to stem the bleeding. Speculation swirls about bankruptcy, break-up or a state-arranged rescue by UBS. “Status quo is no longer an option,” says JPMorgan analyst Kian Abouhossein.
Is Körner — described by one colleague as “unflappable, despite having the most stressful job in banking” and by another as “having a preternatural ability to absorb pressure” — the right man to hold the bank together?
“Uli may come across as an introverted person, but he’s very likeable one on one, smart and intelligent, and in many cases those are the best people in a crisis,” says Ermotti, former chief executive of UBS. “But at the time he took the job, it was like a firefighter being asked to rush into a burning building. It is extremely challenging and difficult to turn this around.”
Körner, 60, was born in Germany but went to a Swiss school and holds dual citizenship. He started his career at Price Waterhouse before joining McKinsey. In 1998, he joined Credit Suisse, rising to become head of Switzerland.
“He was a very quiet individual, kept his counsel to himself,” says Kai Nargowala, who left the Credit Suisse board last year. “At the time the place was dominated by Americans like [former CEO] Brady Dougan and [former asset management boss] Eric Varvel, and as you know Americans like to take up a lot of the oxygen in the room. Uli was silent but effective.”
In 2009 Körner went to UBS. Ermotti tasked him with slashing a bloated corporate centre and turning around the asset management unit, and credits him with “a fantastic job”. It was there he earned the nickname “Uli the knife” for his dispassionate cost cutting.
Körner returned to Credit Suisse in April 2021 to help redress the Greensill Capital scandal, when the asset management unit was forced to suspend $10bn of investment funds amid allegations of fraud. At the same time, the crisis deepened when the bank lost $5.5bn on the collapse of family office Archegos.
Credit Suisse had gone into “analysis paralysis, it couldn’t make a decision on anything”, says Nargowala. “At this stage it needs some clear direction, and Uli has tried to give that.”
Choosing Körner was an attempt to break a pattern of more flamboyant leaders whose terms had ended in disgrace, according to one board member. “Uli is not a showman, but a very fact-based and sober business leader,” the board member says. “Journalists may find him less exciting. But that is what we need.”
However, his blunt, data-led communication style has failed to comfort investors. Nor has he managed to halt the client exodus from the wealth management division, key to Credit Suisse’s ability to survive. “Uli keeps repeating that [the bank] has high liquidity and capital so is safe and sound, but that should be a given, it is not reassuring,” says one rival Swiss banking executive. “The bland style and the pace that things are being done is a concern.”
Former top investor David Herro, of Harris Associates, has also criticised a deal Körner approved with a board member. Michael Klein orchestrated a spinout of the investment banking business, negotiating not only a $175mn buyout of his own firm, but also a $10mn fee for his advice.
“He has never run an investment bank so is at the mercy of people like Klein, who are running rings around him,” one senior colleague says. “Likewise, he has never run wealth management nor worked outside Switzerland, so doesn’t have the network to fact check and navigate these global strategic decisions.”
Outside work, Körner’s personality is more colourful. He has three children — and three dogs: a dogo argentino, Boston terrier and German wire-haired pointer — and lives in Engadine, an Alpine valley where he hikes and skis. He is also sociable and likes a drink, favouring wine.
But he is best known in Zurich for being a “petrolhead” and rally driver. He takes a different classic Porsche from his collection to the office each day. In 2013 he raced in the “Peking to Paris Motor Challenge” in a customised grey 1972 Porsche 911 and he negotiated the UBS sponsorship of Formula 1, claiming to colleagues that he got the better of Bernie Ecclestone.
Since taking over in July, he has told friends that he is too busy to race. However, if he is unable to rally Credit Suisse’s shares soon, he may find himself with more time to indulge his passion.