Column Commerzbank needs a new boss from outside

Capital columnist Bernd Ziesemer columnist Bernd ZiesemerMartin Kress

It’s actually quite simple: “Increase income, reduce costs”. The slogan comes from the new Chairman of the Commerzbank Supervisory Board, Hans-Jörg Vetter – and it is correct. And not just since last week when she heard from Vetter, but for many years. Unfortunately, not much has happened in the past to put this wonderful insight into practice. This has a lot to do with the very special corporate culture at the bank. No other big bank has been stewing in its own juice for as long as Commerzbank.

The rules of good corporate governance have not applied at the bank for decades. No direct change from chairing the board to the supervisory board? The opposite happened at the bank. An orderly selection process when looking for a new CEO? You can save yourself. The consideration of external candidates when filling top jobs? Not at Kaiserplatz in Frankfurt.

Between 1991 and 2001, Martin Kohlhaussen ruled as chief executive officer – and then for seven years as head of the supervisory board. His successor Klaus-Peter Müller was at the helm until 2008 – and was even ten years as a supervisor. The two subsequent CEOS – first Martin Blessing, then to this day Martin Zielke – served each other highly for years under their mentor Müller. And Müller’s direct successor as head of the supervisory board, Stefan Schmittmann? A former board member of Commerzbank, what else.

There was never a wake-up call at Commerzbank

For 30 years now, there has hardly been any new external personnel at the top of Commerzbank. And because you had known each other for so long, nobody wanted to hurt the other. Müller attached great importance to the fact that the board of directors was always harmonious. Hard decisions were not part of the management tools – the situation at Commerzbank has deteriorated continuously since the financial crisis of 2008/2009. The bank’s existing shareholders have since lost over 90 percent of their assets.

Commerzbank share

Commerzbank share chart
Course provider: L&S RT

But there was never a real wake-up call. For years the changing strategies of the bank have been surrounded by a mixture of madness and escapism. Just think of the grandiose plan to massively expand the number of branches when the rest of the wasteland was in the process of saving them. Last week, the responsible board member Michael Mandel resigned from office – failed across the board. As was to be expected, the head of the private customer division had also been part of Müller’s kitchen group for many years.

Change can only come from outside under such conditions. The appointment of Vetter to the head of the Supervisory Board was a good first step in this regard, which should be followed by further steps. The next CEO should not come out of the orbit of the failed Müller management. So an external candidate – or the former ING manager Roland Boekhout, who has only been on the board since January and knows from his previous work how a modern bank should work. In any case: not like the previous Commerzbank.

Bernd Ziesemer is a capital columnist. The business journalist was editor-in-chief of the Handelsblatt from 2002 to 2010. He was then managing director of the corporate publishing division of the Hoffmann und Campe publishing house until 2014. Ziesemer’s column appears regularly on You can follow him on Twitter here.


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