As Credit Suisse entered weekend crisis talks that would end in its forced takeover, a group of its bankers embarked on a different sort of survival challenge: an outdoor adventure trip that they were filming for Bear Grylls.
The executives spent Friday night on a camping retreat in Sai Kung, a picturesque town in Hong Kong known for its hiking trails, said three people with knowledge of the matter.
Grylls, the TV adventurer, will use their filmed material in a presentation he is giving at Credit Suisse’s flagship investor conference in the city this week. The subject of his talk is “lessons learned from navigating some of the harshest environments”. The staff paid for the trip themselves, Credit Suisse said.
It is just one element of the bank’s Asian Investment Conference that is unintentionally prescient: this year’s theme is “Embracing Reality”. Months in the making, the gathering began in Hong Kong on Tuesday just two days after a forced takeover by rival UBS at the behest of regulators that ended its 167-year independent history.
“We must all continue to work as normal,” Credit Suisse’s chief executive Ulrich Körner and chair Axel Lehmann wrote in a memo to staff on Monday, the day after the sale.
About 1,600 executives from asset managers, hedge funds, family offices and other investment groups arrived at Hong Kong’s five-star Conrad hotel to watch shell-shocked Credit Suisse executives attempt to follow that instruction.
The conference has been a fixture of the region’s financial calendar for more than a quarter of a century. This time around, the agenda included weighty topics such as US-China relations, the chip war and Russia’s war in Ukraine. After the weekend’s events, some of the financial panels — “Where has all the risk gone?” and “In a fast-changing, fragmented world, how can we create sustainable value?” — sounded out of place.
Still, on the event’s main stage, “it felt like business as usual”, said Mark Kwan, an executive director of the Singapore wealth manager Straits Asset Management. “If you didn’t read the news, you wouldn’t have thought anything had happened. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Wry humour peppered private conversations. That included jokes about whether attendees needed to pay for their own breakfast or whether the Swiss National Bank would pay, and whether bankers’ corporate credit cards were still working, according to one attendee.
Two people said, half in jest, that they were hoping to pick up merchandise that would mark the end of an era. Lehman Brothers-branded baseball caps sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. A third said none was available, “not even any pens”.
There were some exceptions to the business-as-usual rule. Körner, Lehmann and Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee cancelled plans to attend, in what a bank spokesperson described as minor changes to the schedule.
Journalists had their invitations rescinded at the eleventh hour. Several turned up anyway, though they were closely supervised by communications staff and kept out of the main event.
“The AIC represents Credit Suisse at its best,” Neil Hosie, the bank’s global head of equities, said in a statement. “For 26 years, it has been our privilege to present powerful perspectives on the themes that matter most.” Hosie took Körner’s slot at the event.
Beneath the humour and sense of the absurd, there was sadness. In private conversations, clients offered to help Credit Suisse bankers find new jobs, according to a banker present. A reporter gave a Credit Suisse media relations executive — who was tasked with keeping the press out — a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
Several attendees said they felt they were intruding on private grief. One called it a “sad and nostalgic time”.
A Credit Suisse banker said they were disturbed by a reporter while they were trying to have a “sentimental conversation” with colleagues.
Credit Suisse staff “are absolutely gutted and shell-shocked”, said an adviser who held meetings with its bankers on the day of the event. “There’s a lot of upset and anger.”
“Things weren’t easy there,” said a former Credit Suisse banker as he reflected on the takeover on the eve of the conference. “But my God, I never expected it to end like this.”
Source: Financial Times