(Reuters) - Michael Corbat, Citigroup Inc’s new chief executive, is a survivor.
In a three-decade career that started at Salomon Brothers, the former offensive lineman for Harvard has endured countless mergers and succeeded in coming out on top.
He has run multiple units at Citigroup that allowed him to get to know the bank’s board of directors, including wealth management and Citi Holdings, where the bank put bad assets it was looking to shed.
But Corbat, 52, whose athletic build and eyeglasses have earned comparisons with Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, among colleagues, has a tough job ahead.
He must now reshape Citigroup in a new financial order, pulling back from products and geographical areas that are seen as “non-core” and negotiate with banking regulators. Citi needed three government rescues to make it through the financial crisis of 2008.
In a memo to employees after the announcement on Tuesday, Corbat said he believed the bank was on the right path.
“However, the environment is a challenging and dynamic one. Regulatory, legislative and economic changes around the world present headwinds as we redefine our relationships with all of our stakeholders.”
Some experts who know Corbat said they were convinced that his no-nonsense approach is well suited to the bank’s next chapter.
“I applaud the decision the board has made to name him CEO,” said Sanford “Sandy” Weill, the tycoon who built Citigroup into a financial conglomerate. “He has been a great manager for Citi in all of the important positions he has held. He is respected by the people within the company and he will be a good leader for the team in the future.”
Corbat’s work for Citi Holdings sealed his reputation at the third-largest U.S. bank, executives said.
The task of extricating the bank from more than 40 businesses, including the initial public offering and sale of Citi’s remaining stake in life insurer Primerica Inc, would have been seen as a poisoned chalice by many in the banking industry during such a turbulent period. But he sold more than $500 billion of assets while still getting high enough prices to build up much-needed capital.
Corbat appeared to relish the task. He even described his job as “the easiest job in the world,” because so many companies and funds were looking to buy Citigroup assets, according to one banking source, who declined to be named.
“He’s really polished and measured,” the source said, adding that Corbat showed an exceptional ability to forge successful alliances within the firm.
Corbat was rewarded for his success with his appointment at the start of this year as CEO of Europe, Middle East and Africa, overseeing all of Citi’s business operations in the region.
In that role, he steered the company through a raging euro crisis while also pursuing new business opportunities in the Gulf and Africa.
“He has great leadership capabilities. I think he will probably be in a better position to get regulatory approval for the return of excess capital,” said Anthony Polini, analyst at Raymond James.
With the world economic picture still looking far from certain, Corbat will be able to make good use of the experience he gained from his involvement in sorting out the bankruptcy of Orange County, California and sovereign debt restructurings in Latin America as well as corporate clean-ups.
That is likely to require all the team building abilities he honed on the football field back at Harvard — and likely give him less time to go fly fishing, a sport he is also known to enjoy.
“Everyone is important in their own way, but when you’re in the game and a part of it, that day, you know you made a contribution,” Corbat told the Harvard Crimson in the early 1980s.
Reporting by Dan Wilchins and David Henry in New York, Alex Chambers and Sudip Roy of IFR and Dasha Afanasieva in London; Writing by Alex Smith in London; Editing by Steve Orlofsky