Citicorp learns from past mistakes: New tactics and a local hero are paying off for the US bank in Europe, reports Peter Rodgers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONNO Ruding, the Dutch vice- chairman of Citicorp in charge of worldwide corporate banking, has a high opinion of the importance of local knowledge to an American organisation in Europe. It can pay off at critical moments, he says.

'We picked up earlier than others the degree of the recession in Germany because we spoke to the right people. I did not believe the economic forecasts, which as the Americans say are 'crap'. It was an example of how important it is to stay in touch and pick up the local flavour.'

Mr Ruding now spends a week each month in Europe, and part of his job is to oversee the final stages of the reorganisation of the bank's European corporate banking business.

A former Dutch finance minister and chairman of the International Monetary Fund interim committee - jobs that honed him into a fluent pundit on virtually any matter financial or economic - Mr Ruding came second to Jacques Attali in the race to be first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

But as a sign of commitment to his new job, when Mr Attali fell from grace Mr Ruding ruled himself out as a replacement within hours of his name being suggested.

Mr Ruding had already been breaking new ground in New York, since he was the first European to join the board of Citicorp, the holding company of Citibank, something he says 'they should have done earlier'.

He became a non-executive director of Citicorp in July 1990, in time to experience the worst period in its 179-year history, as aggressive lending in the 1980s, mainly in the United States property market, backfired with enormous losses.

The following year the group passed its dividend for the first time, and last year - just before Mr Ruding moved into an executive role as vice-chairman with responsibility for Citibank's worldwide corporate business - the group was faced with the supreme embarrassment of signing and later publicly disclosing a memorandum of understanding with US banking supervisors, to allow intensive monitoring of its affairs. The speed of the turnaround after the trauma in the US surprised sceptical analysts, as the bank improved margins and cut costs, to the point where its shares have now become a strong recovery stock.

Yesterday the group reported third-quarter net income more than quadrupled at dollars 528m ( pounds 352m) compared with dollars 116m a year ago.

'Europe was never a place where we made huge losses, but we had our share - including property in the UK,' Mr Ruding says.

But in London, an unspoken objective of Citibank's rethink must be finally to bury memories of the bank's embarrassing mid-1980s experience, when it launched a disastrous dollars 250m foray into securities markets, and especially equities.

After a confusing and bruising few years of chopping and changing strategies, it withdrew from equities and gilts with a bloody nose.

Some American banks bitten by the same bug virtually abandoned Europe in disgust as a result of their traumas in London. 'They were all over the place and have largely retreated into the US. But despite our problems we have continued to expand,' Mr Ruding says.

'We focus on a number of products at which we are good. We no longer pretend to be a bank in Europe in all markets at all times for all people. What we do set out to be is a bank all over Europe that focuses on the corporate side.'

In Mr Ruding's area of the bank this means leaving the middle market to others, because it requires too many staff and branches and local banks are too competitive, and going instead for the cream. These are likely to be the larger companies, typically with a turnover more than dollars 500m. The target market is now the 2,000 largest corporations and 7,000 financial institutions in the 21 European countries where Citibank operates.

These would need foreign exchange, hedging, capital markets, investment banking, money transmission, cash management and custody services.

Mr Ruding says: 'I don't think we can compete successfully with local banks in domestic currency - what makes much greater sense is cross-border business.'

What were the lessons of the mid- 1980s? 'We will now go where we think we are better than others, where we have a natural advantage. An American bank is more flexible than a European bank,' Mr Ruding says, citing ability to cut costs. The cost structure in European banks is very high, because they employ large numbers of people.

Citibank's European corporate banking staff in Mr Ruding's empire have been cut from 5,500 at the peak four years ago to 3,300 now (out of a total European staff of 12,000).

In the UK the numbers in Mr Ruding's area have dropped from 2,500 post-Big Bang to 1,750. But European corporate banking revenues have grown from dollars 700m to dollars 1.3bn, helped recently by booming foreign exchange and derivatives markets.

He says Europe is now getting very close to America in Citibank's corporate banking revenues. The group's strategy, influenced by its recent problems, is to find a balance between both geographical coverage and types of business that make it less reliant on any one activity or part of the world.

Citibank is rated world number one in several businesses such as foreign exchange, and third in derivatives. It may by now have reached the number one slot as banker to the top couple of hundred European companies, since it is the largest foreign bank in most countries.

In Britain, Citibank is probably fourth-biggest banker to the top 100 companies, after National Westminster, Barclays and Midland, and - surprisingly - ahead of Lloyds. How can Mr Ruding be sure the same old mistakes won't recur? He says there are now much better checks and balances inside Citibank, part of a group-wide rethink to create mechanisms to stop the bank accidentally putting too many eggs in one basket (such as property).

This is a change of culture from the days of gung-ho lending. 'We haven't become risk-averse but we are much more risk-aware than in the past.' Mr Ruding adds: 'We have become a bit less ambitious but much more efficient and professional.

'Profitability and return on equity should be our criteria. It is very dangerous to go for size in banking.'

(Photograph omitted)