Iqbal Khan, a bold banker who took on his boss
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It takes a certain kind of person to move in next door to their boss. Today the biggest question in Swiss banking is just what kind of person Iqbal Khan is.
Three months ago, Mr Khan, whose rapid ascent at Credit Suisse had marked him out to many as the heir apparent to chief executive Tidjane Thiam, quit his senior position at the bank. This week, details emerged of a bitter row between Mr Khan, 43, and Mr Thiam, 57, triggered by a confrontation in central Zurich between the private banking prodigy and detectives Credit Suisse had hired to monitor him after he resigned.
It was a lurid end to a spectacular dispute between two of the most powerful men in finance — one from which Mr Khan may yet emerge triumphant. On Tuesday, he is due to take up a senior position at UBS, which would make him a likely successor to Sergio Ermotti as the bank’s chief executive. Mr Ermotti is known to admire Mr Khan’s relentless ambition, prizing it over the qualities of other more rounded contemporaries. Meanwhile, UBS’s chairman, Axel Weber, has taken a dimmer view of the spectacle, according to a person who knows him.
Bruising rows between big egos are not new in the world of finance. But the suburban dimension to Mr Khan’s collision with his boss has given it a distinctive flavour. After he boldly moved into the house next door to Mr Thiam’s two years ago, the pair channelled a simmering generational workplace conflict into bickering over house improvements and blocked views. The dispute climaxed in a row at a neighbourhood cocktail party in January.
“To me, moving in next door like that, there are two signals you might be wanting to send,” says one Credit Suisse executive. “Either: ‘We get along so well I’d like to spend more time near you,’ or else: ‘I’m coming for you.’”
Yet the image of an overweening princeling is only part of the picture. Many of those who have worked with Mr Khan recognise different sides to his personality.
“He’s the kind of guy who will treat a waiter just the same as he would a chief executive,” says Dan Zilberman, head of Europe at Warburg Pincus, who has worked with Mr Khan for the past six years. “He treats everyone with respect. He’s good with people. He’s honest and he’s humble.”
With neat spectacles, sharply parted hair and a taste for discreet but heavyweight timepieces by the luxury Swiss watchmaker IWC, Mr Khan always cut a smooth figure at gatherings in Zurich. But it was his solicitous interest in others, and memory for small personal details, that marked him out on the social circuit from other hard-driving titans of high finance.
Former colleagues say it isn’t an act. He is driven by results, rather than show, several of those who have worked with him have said. He is not brash. Until his fateful move next door to Mr Thiam, he occupied a terraced house in the low-tax but also low-key canton of Schwyz. On one of his first trips to hire a new team for Credit Suisse, he flew economy class to South America.
Mr Khan’s first boss at Credit Suisse, Hans-Ulrich Meister, would regularly tell colleagues and clients that he was the best hire he ever made.
“He was very eloquent,” recalls one colleague. “He has this rare mix of being both analytical and details-driven, but also a very sharp communicator.”
Mr Khan, the son of a Pakistani father and a Swiss mother, moved to Switzerland from Karachi aged 12. He worked as an apprentice in a local accountancy firm in the small town of Dübendorf from the age of 15, studying out of hours to earn a diploma and later qualifying as a chartered accountant. In 2001, he joined Ernst & Young, becoming the youngest ever partner of the firm’s Swiss arm at the age of 31. In 2013, he moved to Credit Suisse.
When Mr Thiam joined the bank two years later, Mr Khan stood out. “Iqbal really caught his eye,” says one senior Credit Suisse executive. When he was 40, Mr Khan was promoted to lead a new international wealth management division. In the next three years he boosted earnings from SFr1bn to SFr1.8bn, according to Andreas Venditti, an analyst at Vontobel.
Every year, Mr Khan threw a party for his top-performing lieutenants at a luxurious hotel high above Lake Lucerne. Expensive wine and champagne flowed, with Mr Khan overseeing proceedings like an indulgent monarch happy to dispense praise where it was due. “It was his court,” says one guest.
In March, Mr Thiam attended the annual bash. There was a noticeable chill between the two men. The rift that opened in January had widened. If Mr Khan was happy to dole out praise to those under him, he also expected his own achievements to be recognised.
When it became clear that Credit Suisse’s chairman, Urs Rohner, would not force Mr Thiam to give Mr Khan more of the limelight, he began talking to rivals. In late spring, he took a PowerPoint presentation to the board of Julius Baer, explaining why the Swiss private bank should make him its new head.
Mr Khan was not short of other offers. But even after his resignation, Mr Thiam still saw in him a serious threat — and not without reason. The loyalty that Mr Khan commands from those who worked for him — and his reputation for getting results — made him more than just a pretender to the throne. Mr Khan had a legitimate claim.
The writers are the FT’s Switzerland and Austria correspondent and European banking correspondent