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Principles before profit — that sums up Citigroup’s emphasis following the financial crisis, said Co-President James Forese during a talk with students on September 24.
The event, sponsored by the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics and moderated by Professor Bruce Kogut, director of the center, explored the importance of leadership, values, and corporate governance in finance, as well as what MBA students can do to succeed in financial services. Much of the conversation focused on Citigroup’s self-governance and operating changes since the 2008 global financial crisis.
“Making money can only be the goal when we can do it in a responsible way,” said Forese, who is also CEO of Citigroup’s Institutional Clients Group. “We have to let opportunities pass by if they don’t meet our principles.” He explained that what got Citigroup into trouble before the crisis was the same ailment that affected many other banks: the relaxing of values to hit financial goals and increase growth. “We had become an expansive company that was hard to manage,” Forese said.
In response to the crisis, Citigroup restructured to help protect the company from future stressing events. Under the leadership of former CEO Vikram Pandit, PhD ’86, the bank began focusing solely on the work banks “should do and are expected to do” this translated into retaining Citigroup’s full array of consumer banking products and services while exiting certain “extra” service areas, such as insurance and wealth management — businesses the company is still in the process of winding down. “We want to be responsible members of the communities where we do business,” Forese said.
Citigroup’s renewed consumer-focus has meant keeping the same expansive global footprint, started when the company first went international 200 years ago. Today, the company does business in 160 countries and has a physical presence in 101. “We pride ourselves on being an innately welcoming, accepting culture,” Forese said. At the same time, Citigroup strives to apply the company’s US business ethics in its dealings around the world — even when it’s not the local custom. “It’s a combination of applying standardized values while recognizing that cultures are different.”
Forese said the biggest worries to banks today lie outside of bankers’ control — geopolitical events, such as the collapse of the Eurozone, acts of terrorism, and natural disasters. But he believes the banking system is significantly safer and sounder than it was prior to 2008, thanks in part to increased federal regulations, but also to the steps individual banks like Citigroup have taken to reduce leverage and vulnerability.
However, the most dangerous risk to the industry is one that can’t be regulated — human judgment. “There are very few bankers who want to re-live the crisis,” Forese said. “We can only hope that the next generation of leaders don’t make the same mistakes.”