A financier back from the brink

Focus on the Citigroup merger: the man in charge; the implications for UK banks; and a warning for stockholders
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IN December 1991 John Reed, the chief executive of Citicorp, appeared all but washed up. His bank, once the largest in the US, had recovered from overlending in Latin America only to stumble into overlending to stretched property magnates such as New York's Donald Trump. It was preparing to declare a loss for 1991 of $451m. The Federal Reserve Bank and Washington's Comptroller of the Currency were worried about its shaky capital base. If it had not been for the purchase of a large equity stake by a friend of the bank, His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, Reed might have gone down.

Still, those talking to the besieged chief executive at the time noticed three things. First, appearance. Born in 1939, the man remained preternaturally boyish - physically unmarked by the ordeal. Second, his turnaround plan. There was an Asian-slogan-like simplicity about it. Survive 1992. Raise $4 -5bn in capital by 1993, half again the bank's capital in 1990. Concentrate on core businesses, particularly consumer banking. Cut costs by 15 per cent, or $1.5bn, over two years. Third, personal drive. "He has often spoken of that time as a humbling experience," a Citicorp spokesman said last week. But Reed's new-found humility only spurred him to greater action.

Having survived his brush with oblivion, Reed all but dropped from sight. A spokesman for American banking in the 1980s, he buried himself in the nuts and bolts of his business in the 1990s.

Citicorp, which along with US investment bank Salomon Brothers had led the international charge of American financial institutions in the 1980s, fell off the media screen. In 1995 Reed did pop up again. Citicorp's private banking division in Mexico City included among its clients Raul Salinas, brother of Carlos Salinas, Mexico's outgoing president. As the peso crisis precipitated by Carlos Salinas's government plunged millions of middle- class Mexicans back into poverty, Citicorp was helping Raul Salinas move $80m out of Mexico to Switzerland.

But Salinas was a temporary reversion to the bad old days. Despite the negative publicity generated, Reed continued to execute on his turnaround plan. In 1996 Fortune's Carol Loomis, one of America's most influential business reporters, judged Reed "fully vindicated" in his decision to stay on at Citicorp in 1991 and turn the bank around. The piece in which she offered this opinion was headlined, "John Reed's Second Act". By 1996 Citicorp was once again America's largest bank.

More than that, for all the drama of his rise and fall and rise, Reed's bank still bore a fundamental similarity to the one he had conceived of in the early 1980s while still a protege of Walter Wriston, his legendary predecessor at Citicorp's helm. Reed was perhaps first among bankers to understand how completely the computer was going to dissolve national boundaries in the sale and administration of financial services. Reed was also was quick to grasp that as banking went global, it would go brand- name. He sought to place Citi's logo along side those of Coca Cola, McDonald's, and Nike as the colours of American-style capitalism.

Reed further understood that the process that has come to be known as globalisation would produce a transnational class of well-heeled executives operating from London to New York to Taipei, all with similar financial aspirations and needs. He earmarked this new class as Citicorp's core market. Consequently, when last Monday Citicorp announced its $82.9bn merger with Travelers - an amalgam of an old-line Connecticut insurance company, the US broker Smith Barney and Salomon Brothers, which, after its humbling in 1991, was retooled by the billionaire investor Warren Buffett - Reed was essentially playing the same game he has always played.

Citigroup, as the new entity will be called, will strive for what Reed has always strived for: pole position in the race to be the world's number one consumer bank. But now Reed and his colleagues will sell stockbroking along side loans and credit cards. After supplying a mortgage to a customer, Citigroup will push house insurance. This merger is impeccably timed because even as Reed was pronounced fully rehabilitated in 1996, he faced a new threat.

First, Citicorp lost its place as America's biggest bank again - this time to the merged Chase Manhattan and Chemical Banks. Then it faced an increased competitive threat from Wall Street, as houses such as Merrill Lynch and the merged Morgan Stanley and Dean Witter vied with it for poll position in the global sale of financial services.

When the man who built up Travelers, Sanford "Sandy" Weill, another warhorse of the 1980s, approached Reed about a merger at a business convention in Washington last month, the Citicorp chief executive's instinct was to say "why not?"

It is not certain the merger will work. Weill is less well known internationally. But he is just as much a figure in New York as Reed. Every Wall Street banker knows that Weill's ambition, as Joseph Califano, an adviser to John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson told the New York Times, has long been to "build the greatest financial services company in the history of the world". The two men could easily fall out as co-architects of the merger and co-chief executives of the new group.

Citicorp has tried to branch out from commercial banking in the past - notably in the City of London. Thirteen years ago it bought two old- guard City firms, Scrimgeour and Vickers, plastered them together, and positioned them to jump into London's newly deregulated markets after the 1986 Big Bang. But Scrimgeour-Vickers ended up nowhere in the revamped City and the money spent on the operation was wasted.

Still, it would be unwise to bet against Citi and Travelers. With $700bn (pounds 429bn) in assets and 100 million customers in 100 countries, the new group is flush. Citicorp's earnings were up from $451m of red ink in 1991 to $3.6bn of profit in 1997. Its shares were up from $8.50 in 1991 to $142 before the merger was announced on Monday.

Just as the union of two phoenixes of US finance - Citicorp and the Salomon Brothers Traveler's unit - closes the book on the 1980s, the Reed-Weill union joins two powerful forces in US culture. Weill is a wisecracking Jewish American whose catch line when questioned about each of his successes has been: "Not bad for a kid from Brooklyn."

Reed is the quintessential American Wasp. He is the global strategist. At the core of his strategy lies the perception, now 25 years old, that technology is driving private enterprise to overrun the national boundaries standing in the way of a single global market.