Citicorp Rewards Debt Negotiator with a Top Job
NEW YORK - Citicorp's William Rhodes has had an assignment not unlike that of Sisyphus, the ancient Corinthian who was condemned to roll a heavy rock up a hill only to have it roll back when he relented.
At Citicorp, Mr. Rhodes has presided over one Third World debt restructuring agreement after another since 1982, totaling hundreds of billions of dollars.
Unlike Sisyphus, though, Mr. Rhodes has made it to the top. On Wednesday, Citicorp named him vice chairman and a member of the board.
Praise for Rhodes
"It's a nice reward for a lot of hard work," said said George Salem, an analyst with Prudential Securities, Inc. in New York.
"He's certainly one of the top people in the world in the Third World debt restructuring."
Mr. Rhodes was unavailable for comment.
But in a recent interview, he sounded his first note of cautious optimism on debt restructurings in nearly a decade.
"Compared to where we were a year ago, there's been progress," Mr. Rhodes said in an interview at the bank's midtown Manhattan headquarters.
Negotiations Not Over
In a internal memo distributed Tuesday, Citicorp chairman and chief executive John S. Reed said Mr. Rhodes would continue to be responsible for the bank's cross-border portfolio "as well as a broader role covering our international activities."
As the top international advisor to Citicorp chairman John Reed, Mr. Rhodes heads bank advisory committees for nine countries and is broadly viewed as the world's leading and most experienced debt negotiators.
Despite the promotion, Mr. Rhodes' career as a debt negotiator is not yet over.
Poland is asking commercial banks to forgive half its $11 billion in debts, while talks with Argentina on some $30 billion in debt have not even begun.
Big One Still Unresolved
Brazil, which owes banks about $45 billion, has yet to reach a debt reduction agreement with banks. Mexico, Venezuela, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Morocco, and Nigeria have reached agreements under an initiative launched by U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady two years ago.
"Brazil's the big one and Brazil still has to be worked out," Mr. Rhodes said.
Little prepared him for the role he has assumed.
Born and raised in Douglaston, Queens, the 55-year-old Mr. Rhodes retains a strong New York City accent.
He joined Citicorp in 1957 just out of Brown University, where he majored in history and minored in Russian literature.
After 13 years in Venezuela and two in Jamaica for the bank, he first became involved in debt restructurings in 1979 in Nicaragua.
Those who know him well say he is more a politician than a banker.
Others use words like "stubborn" to describe Mr. Rhodes. They say he plays a high-wire act while trying to form a consensus among Citibank, other banks, and debtor countries.
Antagonistic but Effective
"His task is to get everybody on board," says Antonio de Padua Seixas, an executive director at Banco Pactual SA and former top-ranking Brazilian debt negotiator.
"He generally succeeds, but he can create a climate that is pretty antagonistic along the way," Mr. Seixas adds, recalling one occasion when he himself once stormed out of a particularly tough bargaining session and flew back to Brazil.
Whatever reservations others may have about Mr. Rhode's negotiating tactics, few believe the big debt deals would have gotten done without him.
Stamina and Optimism
"He's got enormous stamina, he's tenacious, he never gets discouraged, he finds solutions, and he gets things done," says Jacques de Larosiere, governor of the Bank of France and former head of the International Monetary Fund.
"There aren't many people around who have got as deep an understanding of the economies of developing countries, the banking system and the politics involved as Bill Rhodes."
"He's dogged, he's determined, and he's got an ability to simplify things and pick out what makes sense," says a Bank of America senior vice president, Richard M. Bloom, who has been handling Third World debt restructurings about as long as Mr. Rhodes.
Even long-standing opponents on the other side of the negotiating table like Mexico's undersecretary for international finance, Jose Angel Gurria, concede he has held the single most important role in getting debt deals done.
A Sense of the Possible
"He's got a good sense of what is doable," says Mr. Gurria.
Probably few U.S. bankers have seen as many corners of the world or led as eventful a life as Mr. Rhodes.
Books, photos, newspaper caricatures, and letters from senior U.S. and foreign officials line the shelves and walls of his second floor office at the corner of 53rd street and Park Avenue.
Clearly, he has enjoyed the excitement that comes from knowing top government officials on a first-name basis, attending Latin American presidential inaugurations, and flying out to cities where armed troops line the streets.
But nearly 10 years of unrelenting negotiations over hundreds of billions of dollars in loans have taken their toll.
Bankers say Mr. Rhodes has trouble unwinding and remains tense, even after negotiations.
"I had to tell him once, look, just relax. You'll damage your health," Mr. Seixas says.
Did He Like It?
"Did I like it working 14 hours days and missing vacations?" Mr. Rhodes counters.
"No. But if you believe you're doing something positive, it makes things easier."
Still, he finds a certain measure of satisfaction in having prevented the debt crisis from overwhelming banks and developing countries after 1982.
"We bought time for the banks and for the countries involved," says Mr. Rhodes.
"At the end of the day it was important. Somebody had to do it."