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Credit Suisse savior Gruebel felled by UBS debacle

Oswald Gruebel could have entered history as the German who pulled both big Swiss banks back from the brink of a deep crisis. A $2.3 billion blow-up in a supposedly sleepy corner of UBS's trading floor meant he didn't.
/ Source: Reuters

Oswald Gruebel could have entered history as the German who pulled both big Swiss banks back from the brink of a deep crisis. A $2.3 billion blow-up in a supposedly sleepy corner of UBS's trading floor meant he didn't.

Gruebel, who started his own career as a trader, stepped down from the helm of the bank on Saturday, shocked by the unauthorized deals over which 31-year old trader Kweku Adoboli has been charged with fraud in London.

"That it was possible for one of our traders in London to inflict a multi-billion loss ... shocked me, as it did everyone else, deeply," Gruebel said in a note to staff.

Kaspar Villiger, the bank's chairman, said on Saturday that "Ossie" had still had the confidence of the board when quit, and that the decision had come only after several long conversations between the two men.

Now 67, Gruebel was brought back from retirement in 2009 when UBS was creaking under the weight of vast losses on toxic assets racked up during the credit crisis and a damaging scandal about bankers helping rich clients dodge taxes.

By then, he was a veteran best known for his tenure as head of UBS's arch-rival Credit Suisse, which used to be the accident-prone bank of the two but which he left in good shape in the hands of his protege Brady Dougan.

In 2007, Dougan inherited a bank that had sold its insurance unit and rid itself of a tradition of nasty surprises around quarterly earnings, and that is now seen as one of the few to have emerged strongly from the global crisis.

In contrast, UBS has given up the ambition for its investment bank to compete with the world's strongest. Its new head Sergio Ermotti said it would in the future offer only those products its rich private banking clients needed.

A war orphan brought up by his grandparents, Gruebel was the archetypical trader, plunging straight into banking when he was just 17 by taking an apprenticeship at Deutsche Bank without having been to university.

He was also a control freak, according to a long profile in Switzerland's Tages-Anzeiger in 2010, who would personally call a trader if they had made an error so that they could not hide and know they were themselves responsible.

"He was always a trader at heart. People were in awe of him, and he didn't suffer fools gladly," a former Credit Suisse colleague told Reuters earlier this year.

While heading Credit Suisse, he showed up on the trading floor almost daily and quizzed traders about what they were betting on.

"The market is your friend, you always have to remember that," Gruebel told traders, adding that if you thought the market was your enemy you wouldn't do well.

He had a reputation for speeding down back roads in the UK in his sports car in the 1980s and bought a yellow Ferrari when he came to London in his thirties.

Sometimes gruff and known for a dry wit, he could equally well mesmerize a business audience when -- speaking without notes -- he would veer off the official program and start sounding off about where markets might be heading.

His love for the money-guzzling Formula One circuit took on an acerbic edge this week when the board meeting that ushered in his departure took place amid preparations for an event to entertain the bank's clients at the glamorous racetrack in Singapore.

Winding down may not be so easy for the lover of Spanish wines -- Ribera del Duero is a favorite -- who told friends that he liked to "think about markets" to relax.

"I get to do everything too little. The days are getting longer and the nights shorter. But it is fun, or else I would have given up a long time ago," he told the Swiss magazine Bilanz in an interview in May.

In September he indicated he hadn't given retirement much thought. He didn't have a garden, he said, and he would probably still spend time in front of the trading screens. "And from time to time I will also read an exciting thriller."

But still. Dressed casually, Gruebel was seen strolling with his partner through the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Singapore late on Friday, amid the noise of wailing Formula One cars outside, and chuckled while chatting to a colleague.

He then disappeared to the lift -- looking relieved.