Three years ago Pierre Wauthier ran a half-marathon on his 50th birthday. Last month he took his own life, leaving a typed note criticizing Josef Ackermann, one of Europe’s most prominent financial figures.
The decision by the triathlete, husband and father of two to end his life was described as shocking by friends and co-workers, who knew the chief financial officer of Zurich Insurance Group AG (ZURN) as a hard-working problem-solver who brought humor to the dry world of insurance accounting.
His letter mentioning Ackermann, who stepped down as Zurich’s chairman after Wauthier, 53, committed suicide, also confounded colleagues. Zurich Insurance held a memorial service for Wauthier today at Zurich’s Grossmuenster church, an edifice built in the Middle Ages overlooking the Limmat River.
“Pierre was a resilient chap, and his suicide seems totally out of character,” said Paul Goodhind, an independent insurance industry consultant, adding he knew Wauthier well from the time he followed Zurich Insurance as an analyst. “Pierre had an air of self-confidence about him, and I always saw him as a high flyer.”
Wauthier, born in London to a German mother and French father, returned to Switzerland in late 2007 after a stint in California to take the position of group treasurer at Zurich Insurance, the country’s biggest insurer. Four years later, he was promoted to CFO. His tenure under Ackermann, who joined the company after 10 years as the chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank AG (DBK), lasted about 15 months.
In a typed and signed note, under the heading “to whom it may concern,” Wauthier wrote that Ackermann created an unbearable working environment, according to a person who read the letter and asked not to be identified because the matter is private.
Ackermann, who resigned on Aug. 29, said allegations that he bore some responsibility for the suicide were “unfounded,” while acting Chairman Tom de Swaan, 67, and CEO Martin Senn said they saw no signs of conflict between the executives. The board will conduct a review to make sure no undue pressure was put on the CFO, they said.
In a statement on Sept. 1, Ackermann said that “out of respect,” he doesn’t want to make any further comments about the matter. Phone calls to Joerg Neef, a spokesman for Ackermann, were not returned over the past two days.
Among the attendees of today’s memorial service were Axel Lehmann and Geoff Riddell, both members of Zurich Insurance’s executive committee, as well as former Chairman Manfred Gentz.
Zurich Insurance wants to “learn the lessons of the recent past and use them to build a stronger future,” de Swaan said at the service. Senn told attendees that the firm needs to “continue on its path and continue to look after its values.”
“Colleagues speak of his kindness, humor, his great sensitivity and his quirky taste of ties,” de Swaan said. “Despite his superiority, he was always respectful to others.”
Wauthier, who had French and British citizenship, worked a lot and enjoyed it, former co-workers said. In his early days at Zurich’s investor relations department, colleagues would find him poring over spreadsheets until late at night, according to two people who knew him at the time. He was knowledgeable and loved numbers, they said.
Ackermann, 65, didn’t know Wauthier well and typically saw him about once a month as part of regular board briefings, said a person close to the former Deutsche Bank CEO, asking not to be identified because the matter is private. While the former colonel in the Swiss Army put pressure on management to improve Zurich Insurance’s performance, he didn’t consider his efforts excessive, the person said.
One meeting occurred before the presentation of second-quarter earnings on the afternoon of Aug. 14. The two men, together with James Quin, the head of investor relations, had a discussion about how to present the progress the company was making on reaching year-end targets, according to two people briefed on the meeting who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.
There was no indication the meeting, or other encounters between the men, would have upset Wauthier to the point of suicide, said one of the people.
Ackermann’s abrupt departure after sent the company’s shares down as much as 3.8 percent on Aug. 29 and sparked doubts about Zurich Insurance’s financial health after it missed analysts’ profit estimates in three of the past four quarters and announced a surprise write-off in October. That forced Senn to tell analysts on a conference call on Aug. 30 there was no link between Wauthier’s death and the company’s business.
The shares closed at 236.50 Swiss francs in Zurich, unchanged on the day. They dropped 5.1 percent in the five days through Aug. 30, bringing annual declines to 2.8 percent.
Senn, who spent two days in London with Wauthier less than a week before he was found dead on Aug. 26, said the CFO seemed “as fit as a fiddle,” according to an interview in NZZ am Sonntag, published Sept. 1. Executives were making presentations to investors and Wauthier “did an excellent job, for which I complimented him,” he said.
“He was a person of high integrity,” Senn, who declined to speak to Bloomberg, told the newspaper. “Pierre was humble and concentrated fully on his work. That’s why he was not well known publicly.”
Wauthier grew up traveling and living with his parents in Africa because of his father’s work as a journalist for Agence-France Presse, said his widow, Fabienne Wauthier, in a telephone interview. The family lived in Tunisia, South Africa and Algeria, she said, adding that the two met while studying at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
Wauthier held a master’s degree in international finance from l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales outside Paris and a master’s in private law from the Sorbonne. After starting his career in 1982 with a year at KPMG, Wauthier joined the French ministry of foreign affairs and returned to Africa as assistant manager for cultural and technical cooperation affairs at the French embassy in Khartoum, Sudan.
He returned to Paris in 1985 and joined JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM:US), where he worked in investment banking for French financial institutions, and in 1994 moved to London with responsibility for the bank’s insurance product group. In late 1996, Zurich Insurance hired him as the corporate credit and investment risk manager, a newly established position with responsibility for controlling and evaluating the company’s credit risks.
Wauthier served as the head of investor relations between 1999 and 2002, before taking the CFO job at the company’s Los Angeles-based unit Farmers Group Inc., where he stayed until late 2007.
“We were leading the expat life, moving around a lot and living in different countries, and you really rely on each other,” Fabienne Wauthier said, adding that there were “no problems” within the family.
They bought the former hotel and restaurant Loewen, in Walchwil, Switzerland, on the eastern shore of Lake Zug, with plans to renovate it. They were given permission to renovate the façade, remodel existing spaces and build extensions in 2011 and again this year, according to the municipality’s records.
The town, with just over 3,500 residents and about a 45-minute drive from Zurich, describes itself as an “oasis of relaxation.” The area, popular with expatriates because its income taxes are among the lowest in the canton, also has properties of Fiat SpA CEO Sergio Marchionne and German Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel.
Wauthier earned about 3 million francs ($3.2 million) in compensation last year, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified because the company doesn’t disclose the information. He remained approachable and attentive to his subordinates, according to former colleagues.
Wauthier was a runner and a triathlete as well as “a great rock ’n’ roll dancer,” according to his widow. He registered for a half-marathon in Switzerland in each of the past four years, according to Datasport, the main service provider and data manager for sporting events.
“He was a great dad,” Wauthier’s daughter Laura said by phone. “He wasn’t always home, but when he was home he was a great dad.”
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