Wednesday October 17, 2012

NEW YORK -- In picking Michael Corbat to take over as CEO of Citigroup, the board of directors chose a low-profile veteran of the bank -- a sharp contrast to Vikram Pandit, his suddenly departed predecessor.

Corbat, 52, has spent his entire career at Citigroup and its affiliated businesses. A former All-American offensive lineman on Harvard’s football team, Corbat worked his way up the ranks at Salomon Brothers, helped Citi navigate the 2008 financial crisis, rebuilt its credit-card business and, most recently, ran the bank’s operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Perhaps partly because he has spent so much time at one bank and partly because of the sudden nature of his elevation, few on Wall Street had a quick opinion about him on Tuesday.

"Michael Corbat isn’t well known to the Street, and his future strategic direction for the company is uncertain," Jason Goldberg, a banking analyst at Barclays, wrote in a note to clients.

But it seemed nearly every analyst had an opinion about Pandit, who has led the bank for five years. Pandit spent most of his career at Morgan Stanley, then left to start a hedge fund, Old Lane Partners. When Citi bought Old Lane for $800 million in April 2007, Pandit came with it, and wound up as CEO before the year was out.

Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., criticized Pandit and offered tentative praise for Corbat in an interview with CNBC.


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She said Citigroup needed a CEO with international experience and a traditional banking background, both of which Corbat has.

"The board is doing the right thing here," Bair said.

Corbat called himself a "true believer in this Company" in a memo sent to Citigroup employees. The bank is on the right path, he wrote. But Corbat still plans on taking several weeks to examine the business and review chains of command.

"These assessments will result in some changes," he wrote.

Citigroup pointed to Corbat’s work during the 2008 financial crisis, when he ran Citi Holdings, a "bad bank" created to help manage the conglomerate’s many assets. He oversaw the sale of more than $500 billion in assets and more than 40 businesses, including the bank’s stake in Primerica, another financial services company. All of these moves freed up capital for the bank’s core businesses, Citigroup said.