Empty private jet flights hastened the downfall of Credit Suisse chairman António Horta-Osório
After moving to Zurich last spring to lead Credit Suisse Group HER
as president, António Horta-Osório flew to London and Lisbon for work meetings and business events, then spent time with his family in homes there.
On several occasions, a private plane paid for by Credit Suisse dropped him off on a Thursday and returned empty to Switzerland, according to people familiar with the trip. On Monday, a plane took Mr. Horta-Osório to go to work in Zurich.
The empty flights were identified in a review of his trip by the company, which also identified breaches of the Covid-19 quarantine in Switzerland and the UK. A person close to Mr Horta-Osório said the planes were rented and could not wait for the weekend. . The person added that the bank’s rules on the use of aircraft were not broken.
The travel review has become fodder for Credit Suisse officials who lobbied for Mr Horta-Osório’s departure and pressured fellow board members to refuse to back him, people familiar with said from the administration board. The bank announced his resignation earlier this week.
Mr. Horta-Osório had pledged to repair a deeply wounded Credit Suisse. He joined the bank weeks after the collapses of twin clients – Greensill Capital and Archegos Capital Management – rocked the bank. The Portuguese-born banker had a reputation for getting things done. He was knighted British for restructuring Lloyds Banking Group PLC after the financial crisis.
During his brief tenure at Credit Suisse, Mr. Horta-Osório guided a broad rollback in risk-taking and helped recruit new executives.
He also offended longtime executives by attacking Credit Suisse’s practices, compensation and litigation strategies, according to people familiar with the bank. Known for his demanding style, some board members have received complaints about how Mr Horta-Osório talks to staff and about instances where people feel uncomfortable that he sometimes doesn’t wear mask at the bank despite Covid-19-related rules, people familiar with the advice said.
The price paid by Mr Horta-Osório was the leaking of information about his use of the plane and breaches of quarantine in the Swiss and international press, which preceded his resignation.
For the council, a one-day sports spree in July also stood out, people familiar with the council said. Mr Horta-Osório and several members of his family watched Novak Djokovic beat Matteo Berrettini in the men’s Wimbledon tennis final and then traveled to Wembley Stadium in north London to watch Italy beat the England in the final of the UEFA European Football Championship.
The tickets had been bought for customers who dropped out at the last minute, he told the bank, people familiar with his trip said. The total bill for the day was in the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on public ticket prices.
Mr Horta-Osório was not expected to travel to coronavirus-restricted England when he traveled to the two events. He had flown into the country in the mistaken belief that Credit Suisse had granted him an exemption from a 10-day quarantine, according to the person close to Mr Horta-Osório.
Credit Suisse was founded by a Swiss entrepreneur in 1856 to promote trade. By the turn of the millennium, he had become a force on Wall Street and in the fast-growing Asian markets, reaping huge dividends for shareholders.
Then a series of scandals struck. Civil cases related to toxic mortgages in the United States have cost him billions in settlements in recent years. A unit pleaded guilty in the United States last year to defrauding investors in an $850 million debt deal for a Mozambican state-owned company.
Another Mr Fix-it who came via London, former chief executive Tidjane Thiam, resigned in 2020 after failing to contain the reputational fallout from a spy scandal, sparked when a former top executive discovered that the bank was following him.
On the first day, April 30, Mr. Horta-Osório publicly stated that the bank’s problems were beyond anything he had experienced in a business.
The words resonated as an insult to bankers, traders and other workers who saw themselves as guardians of Credit Suisse’s unusual Swiss-American DNA of power and discretion, according to current and former bank employees.
Mr. Horta-Osório brought in key lieutenants and rolled out his Lloyds playbook. He set out to explore Credit Suisse’s global footprint and meet face-to-face with staff, clients, investors and regulators.
He traveled to New York, Qatar, Singapore and London from his new base in Zurich, with visits also to Spain and Portugal, which have not traditionally been big markets for Credit Suisse. He addressed a Portuguese banking conference in Lisbon one day in November, then flew to London to interview a candidate.
The trip, by private plane, seemed justified to those around Mr. Horta-Osório because it built trust and demonstrated commitment.
At the end of November, the variant of the Omicron coronavirus broke out in the United Kingdom. Switzerland has imposed a quarantine on travelers coming from the country, trapping Mr Horta-Osório on a return trip from London. Through a health adviser working with Credit Suisse, he requested a government waiver so he could travel to the office for meetings, according to people familiar with his trip. The waiver was refused and a few days later Mr Horta-Osório traveled to meetings in Madrid, unaware that Swiss rules did not allow people subject to quarantine to leave.
He only realized his mistake when details of the trip were published in Swiss newspaper Blick, his relative said.
Switzerland has complex social and commercial regulations that can be difficult for newcomers to decipher. A life of wealth and privilege is allowed for those who succeed, but it should never make headlines or be exposed in times of crisis, say people who have worked at the bank. Also: Respect the rules.
The hallmark of Credit Suisse, according to people who worked there, is to behave beyond reproach in Switzerland, where Credit Suisse is a ubiquitous business and retail bank.
Some in the upper echelons felt disturbed by the changes imposed by Mr. Horta-Osório.
There were rumors about the departure of Eric Varvel, a 31-year-old banking veteran. He had been the head of the asset management unit that managed $10 billion investment funds with Greensill. The funds had to be frozen when Greensill went bankrupt. Credit Suisse is trying to recover all the money for fund investors.
But he was also considered a legend inside the bank for guarding his house with a bat during riots in Indonesia and for persuading investors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to funnel billions of dollars into Credit Suisse during the 2008 financial crisis, according to people familiar with his career.
Chief executive Thomas Gottstein was the one who told Mr Varvel he had to leave, but it was Mr Horta-Osório who made it clear that it had to happen, according to people familiar with the bank. Mr. Varvel’s departure was announced on December 20.
There were also growing tensions with the bank’s general counsel, Romeo Cerutti, who had held the most senior legal post since 2009, according to people familiar with the tensions. Mr Horta-Osório viewed the lawyer as damaged since he had been at the bank through a number of crises, some people said.
Credit Suisse staff gathered pages from Mr. Horta-Osório’s flight logs and expenses and gave them to law firms for review of the trip. The information was also shared with Swiss regulators. News of his fate began to appear in the Swiss press. This included landing in the Maldives to join his wife on vacation after returning from a business trip to Singapore.
Mr. Horta-Osório left Singapore a day earlier so that another executive could join him and fly back to Zurich, according to someone close to Mr. Horta-Osório.
Just after Christmas, Reuters reported that Credit Suisse had discovered he had broken quarantine at Wimbledon. Board members who gave Mr Horta-Osório a pass on the Switzerland incident were disappointed, according to people familiar with the board.
Severin Schwan, Independent Lead Director of Credit Suisse, is the Managing Director of Roche Holding HER
, upping the ante for him to speak out on the matter as the head of a healthcare company. Mr. Schwan helped set the tone for other council members by viewing the violations as serious, people familiar with the council said.
Mr. Horta-Osório’s use of the private jet and his attendance at sporting events also made some board members uncomfortable. Some felt Mr Horta-Osório was not fully transparent about his actions, according to people familiar with the council.
Credit Suisse had a potential successor behind the scenes. On Jan. 17, the board appointed a new chairman, Axel Lehmann, a Swiss, former UBS executive who joined Credit Suisse’s board in October.
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