Bank CEOs wanted after wave of departures in Europe

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Top bankers in Northern Europe should expect calls from headhunters.

Several of the region’s biggest banks are replacing their chief executive officers after a spate of resignations and dismissals. Swedbank, Nordea Bank and ABN Amro Group still need new CEOs. Svenska Handelsbanken, DNB and Danske Bank just appointed chiefs in the past few months.

The power vacuums arose for unrelated reasons, ranging from money-laundering scandals to stalled turnaround plans. The challenge, though, is the same for all the banks: A shortage of qualified candidates with strong resumes.

Folke Friis-Frederiksen, a senior client partner in Copenhagen for the headhunting firm Korn Ferry, says that on paper, the pool of potential CEOs looks large. But “then reality strikes.”

Concerns range from a dearth of sufficiently qualified internal candidates to remuneration packages that tend to lag behind those elsewhere in the world. The new generation of CEOs will also need to deal with a much tougher regulatory climate as the region stiffens standards on ethical conduct following a string of scandals.

“It’s clear that what’s happening here shows the need to have a deep bench," said Jesper Berg, director general of the Danish Financial Supervisory Authority.

The vetting process for European executives has become tougher since the financial crisis, said Tobias Oudejans, a spokesman for the Dutch central bank. Among other things, lenders and regulators are taking a closer look at how much integrity candidates have displayed throughout their careers.

Danske was a major catalyst. Denmark’s biggest bank is still dealing with the fallout of a vast money-laundering scandal that may result in fines of billions of dollars. The affair ended the career of Thomas Borgen, who had been CEO until October. It took Danske seven months to settle on the Dutch executive Chris Vogelzang, who was once in the running to head ABN Amro after a long career there.

The Danske transition underlined the difficulties. Before Vogelzang got the job, there was speculation that the bank’s acting CEO, Jesper Nielsen, might be a permanent successor to Borgen. Nielsen demurred. Last month, he was fired because a unit he headed overcharged retail clients for investment products. Danske had also tried to give the CEO job to its head of wealth management, Jacob Aarup-Andersen. But he was rejected by the financial regulator last year over a lack of relevant experience.

“Today, it’s much more risky," said Friis-Frederiksen at Korn Ferry. "The kind of due diligence you need to do” is much greater. “You have to be absolutely certain that you’re not able to find any element with which there could be an issue or where you need to start worrying about the press, or there could be some kind of negative sentiment.”

This is where the banks stand:

ABN Amro

The state-controlled Dutch lender’s current CEO, Kees van Dijkhuizen, 63, will leave when his term ends next April. He was placed in the job by the government, which sought someone with a pedigree less banker and more public servant. Danish-born Christian Bornfeld has been named in Dutch media as a possible replacement, after he joined ABN from Nordea last year as chief technology officer.

Any successor will need to nurture ABN’s fragile relationship with the Dutch public after scandals in the sector, including money laundering. The state still owns 56% of the bank, so potential candidates must be acceptable to the legislature. Meanwhile, the new CEO needs to find a way to pump up the share price to help the government reduce its stake, as promised, without losing money.

It is worth noting that the ABN Amro CEO earns less than 1 million euros ($1.1 million) in total compensation, which may deter many prospective candidates.

Nordea

The biggest Nordic bank by assets said June 30 that its CEO, Casper von Koskull, 58, will retire by the end of next year. He is exiting after overseeing thousands of job cuts and a dramatic increase in automation. But revenue growth has stalled and investors have voiced impatience. Nordea has had its own brushes with scandal and is still being investigated in Denmark on allegations of money laundering. It is likely to settle on an external candidate, since there is no obvious successor inside the bank, according to Antti Saari, an analyst at OP Group.

Swedbank

Sweden’s biggest mortgage lender and the main bank in the Baltic region fired its CEO, Birgitte Bonnesen, in late March after she played down the gravity of money-laundering allegations. Swedbank’s new chairman, former Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, said last month a new CEO may be chosen in October or November. He says the selection process will look at both internal and external candidates.

Whoever gets the job will need to handle investigations in Sweden, Estonia and the U.S. into Swedbank’s money laundering involvement. Investors were angered by a 30% drop in the shares so far this year, making Swedbank Europe’s worst-performing financial stock in the period.

Danske Bank

Borgen was ousted after Danske admitted in September that its Estonian operations were at the center of a $230 billion dirty-money scandal. He, and several other former Danske executives, are subject to preliminary charges in the case.

In the aftermath of the Danske affair, Denmark introduced tougher laws to fight money laundering and other forms of financial crime as lawmakers across the political divide look for ways to punish unethical bankers.

Handelsbanken

Handelsbanken, Sweden’s largest bank by branches, in February named veteran Carina Akerstrom as its new CEO to replace Anders Bouvin, who is retiring. During his tenure, Handelsbanken faced criticism from the U.K. regulator over weaknesses in its financial crime framework there.

In Norway, DNB made Kjerstin Braathen CEO after “an extensive process to find the right person.” She’ll succeed Rune Bjerke, who delivered annual returns of almost 9% in the 13 years he ran the bank. The switch at Norway’s biggest bank stands out as a rare example of a largely smooth power transfer in the region.

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