Across the finance industry, Ralph Hamers has earned praise as a champion of artificial intelligence and digital platforms. At home in Amsterdam, where heading up a bank doesn’t always win you friends, the chief executive officer of ING Groep NV is more often linked to a money-laundering affair that led to a record $900mn fine.
UBS Group AG is betting that the industry view is the true Hamers — a man who can reinvigorate its business without bringing any of his scandal-tainted baggage. On Thursday, UBS named Hamers, 53, to succeed Sergio Ermotti at the top of the world’s largest wealth manager.
Hamers looms large in the smaller world of Dutch banking. He’s known for eschewing Savile Row suits in favour of jeans and sneakers and was an early advocate of digitisation and the embrace of internet-based technologies. In his seven years atop ING, Hamers invested hundreds of millions of euros to change the way its 39mn customers worldwide access and manage their money. In 2016, four years after selling ING’s UK online banking unit to Barclays Plc, he re-entered the British market with a mobile app called Yolt. It lets customers manage savings or credit card accounts at rival banks, and takes commissions on transactions. The model exemplified Hamers’s belief that banks shouldn’t be stand-alone fortresses but wide-open shopping malls.
Hamers has even mused that a bank may not need a balance sheet at all to serve its clients — it could simply be an online marketplace for financial products. Unlike sceptics who dismissed the rush to new technologies as a bubble, Hamers says digitisation offers banks their best path to prosperity in an era of negative interest rates and anaemic economic growth.
“People don’t have time these days, and even if they did, they don’t want to spend it on banking,” he said in a 2017 podcast.
Ralph Hamers speaks during a news conference in Zurich, on February 20.
On the Dutch street, though, he’s seen as an archetypal banker more concerned with enriching himself than overseeing his company. In a 24-page report released in September 2018, Dutch prosecutors described an institution that failed to execute basic anti-money laundering practices, including scrutinising new customers and acting on indications of suspicious activity. “Senior management lacked the right tone at the top” for sufficient oversight, the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service said.
Hamers attracted further opprobrium when details emerged from a board meeting in 2019, a few months after the money-laundering fine was revealed and the bank had cancelled bonuses for most employees. For lunch, the board brought in a private chef rather than relying on the cooking staff available to rank-and-file ING employees. Some saw the incident emblematic of a tone-deaf management style.
That notion was underscored in 2018, when most compensation at the bank was rising only modestly and the supervisory board proposed a 50% pay hike for Hamers. Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the increase “excessive,” and a few days later the board withdrew it. Rutte labelled the whole affair “extremely annoying,” and said “bankers shouldn’t expect to improve their public image by increasing their salaries by half.”
The jump to UBS, meanwhile, will likely make the raise he sought at ING look like peanuts. While the Swiss bank didn’t disclose Hamers’s salary, Ermotti last year earned five times what the Dutchman did.
For all of his digital prowess, the new job will test skills Hamers hasn’t often used at ING — dealing with the needs and whims of the super-rich. High-net-worth clients need more than whizbang apps, focusing more on the white-glove treatment of private bankers who can ensure their money is invested wisely in an increasingly volatile world. Hamers’s ability to rein in costs while balancing technology and the human touch will determine his success at UBS, Barclays wrote in a report yesterday.
“Hamers does not have experience in running a Global Investment Bank or Wealth Manager,” analyst Amit Goel wrote. “While he may be viewed as a leader in digital innovation, much of the investor concern for UBS is on the ability to right-size the cost base.”
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