By Bart H. Meijer and Michael Shields
AMSTERDAM/ZURICH (Reuters) – Ralph Hamers made his mark as a tech-savvy chief executive who led Dutch bank ING <INGA.AS> back to profitability after cementing its position as a no-frills lender in Germany and simplifying its product portfolio.
It was this record which likely appealed to Switzerland’s UBS <UBSG.S>, which has named him CEO in a surprise move, rather than the controversies which somewhat tainted his seven-year tenure atop the Netherlands’ largest bank.
Hamers’ time as ING head saw the bank subject to a record fine for lax anti-money laundering procedures, and public rows with politicians over his and other bankers’ pay.
Hamers, 53, climbed the ranks at ING since starting there in 1991, becoming head of its Dutch operations in 2005 and its Belgian branch in 2011 before taking the helm in 2013.
Hamers was responsible for a major reorganization as the bank tried to recover from the financial crisis and realign its operations with new technology, closing hundreds of bank offices and cutting more than 10,000 jobs.
One person who knows him described Hamers as a “people’s man” who during ING’s restructuring and immediately after the money laundering allegations made it a point to take senior colleagues into his confidence by briefing them on how he planned to tackle the challenges.
Hamers, who holds a Master of Science degree in Business Econometrics/Operations Research, is lauded for his focus on improving the bank’s digital services, improving its smartphone app for retail clients, and acquiring a string of fintech companies, with varying levels of success.
Both Hamers’ experience of digitalization and on cost cutting will be needed at UBS, where CEO Sergio Ermotti has struggled with persistently high costs.
“Whilst he may be viewed as a leader in digital innovation, much of the investor concern for UBS is on the ability to right-size the cost base”, Barclays analysts said.
Hamers told a news conference in Zurich: “You can’t focus on digitalization per se … That is not a goal in itself.” He said the focus had to be on how to improve the way customers experience digital services.
Despite his successes, credit for Hamers’ record remained limited outside ING, as politicians from all sides of the Dutch political spectrum hammered on about the importance of curbing bank executives’ pay.
Yet local pay caps meant Hamers was one of the lowest-paid among major European bank CEOs, and in moving to Switzerland he is likely to escape such salary strictures, given the generous 13.8 million Swiss francs ($14 million) doled out to Ermotti, excluding benefits, in 2018.
That compares with the 1.75 million euros ($1.9 million) Hamers received at ING, with his bonuses scrapped due to the money laundering fine.
Married to a former ING colleague and with twin children, Hamers repeatedly scorned traditional Dutch frugality, warning that it limited banks’ ability to attract top talent.
He also didn’t shy from criticism of the European Central Bank’s ultraloose monetary policy, which he deemed unnecessary and harmful to consumer confidence.
Usually without a necktie, Hamers – who told the Financial Times his interests included cycling, running and swimming, and that he sometimes acts as referee’s assistant at his son’s soccer matches – tried to sport the image of a young, modern and approachable CEO.
Yet his easy-going image received a blow in 2018 as ING was fined a record 775 million euros ($837 million) in a settlement with prosecutors over ING’s inability to spot money laundering for years.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer in Amsterdam, Michael Shields in Zurich and Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong; Editing by David Holmes)