Drama at banking giant ABN AMRO finally over, a short reconstruction

On Saturday the 26th  of May, ABN AMRO announced it had found a new non-executive President: Tom de Swaan. He has been a director and CFO at the bank before, after which he served as a director at the Nederlandsche Bank. He will succeed Olga Zoutendijk, who in February decided to leave following a wave of critique that made for a small spectacle in the financial media. So what happened?

Zoutendijk
Olga Zoutendijk was appointed a few years ago as non-executive director, she was quickly promoted to the position of non-executive President. The non-executive directors supervise the board of directors. We have to note here that ABN AMRO has a two-tier board, which means that the executive board and non-executive board are separated. This is opposed to the Anglo-Saxon model, in which there is just one, the one-tier board. In a two-tier board, Zoutendijk’s power is supposed to be limited. She has held several positions within ABN AMRO across the world, after moving to other financial institutions.

In the height of the financial crisis, ABN AMRO was nationalized by the Dutch government in order to rescue the bank.

Gerrit Zalm
Gerrit Zalm was the CEO of the bank between 2010 and 2018. In the height of the financial crisis, ABN AMRO was nationalized by the Dutch government in order to rescue the bank. The man has been minister of Finance and is well-known in political The Hague. He was appointed CEO in order to lead the bank in the transition period from state owned to publicly listed - ABN AMRO was partially privatized a few years ago. Now that his job is more or less done, it was time for a new leader and Zalm was willing to leave the bank.

A few years ago, Van Dijkhuizen was also in the race to succeed Nout Wellink as President of the Nederlandsche Bank, the Dutch central bank.

Kees van Dijkhuizen
As the former CFO of the bank, Van Dijkhuizen was an insider to succeed Zalm as CEO. A few years ago, Van Dijkhuizen was also in the race to succeed Nout Wellink as President of the Nederlandsche Bank, the Dutch central bank. He would not become the new President. As former top-official at the Finance ministry Klaas Knot was ultimately appointed.

The war
For 2 years, ABN AMRO found itself in the midst of a struggle for power. A war between Zalm’s board of directors and Zoutendijk, who is supposed to supervise Zalm and his people. When Zoutendijk was appointed, she held a tour through the bank in order for the employees to get to know her. There was also a big interview in FD, the Dutch financial newspaper. Zoutendijk was full of ambition. But maybe she was a bit too ambitious.

Rumors went that Zoutendijk wanted the position for herself, which she denied categorically.

Zoutendijk’s first job as non-executive President was to find a successor for Gerrit Zalm. There were already a few good candidates working within the bank. Generally seen as crown princes were Chris Vogelzang and Joop Wijn. Mysteriously, neither of them was appointed. Why? Rumors went that Zoutendijk wanted the position for herself, which she denied categorically. But within the bank, she already behaved as if she was the CEO. For example, Zoutendijk would visit the World Economic Forum in Davos for and give presentations on the bank’s strategy. These things were normally sole responsibilities for CEO’s, and not for those who are supposed to supervise the board from a distance. When walking through the bank, she corrects people and tell them how to do their jobs. This of course undermines the authority of Zalm. The two were fighting a true war.

Then there is the difference in personality. Whereas Zalm is seen as a cheerful, smoking man that likes to joke and laugh, Zoutendijk is regarded as very direct and does not avoid any confrontation when she sees things she does not like. She has an opinion about everyone and everything and does not like to be criticized. The stage was set. Zoutendijk is described as full of disdain. She supposedly talks badly about people she does not like, both in private and in public. At one instance, she would have shouted at Zalm:  “What have you really achieved?” Zalm becomes tired of this theater, and just ignores her. She wants him gone, ASAP.

Zoutendijk was summoned to the Ministry, where Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem made it crystal clear to her that she would not succeed Zalm.

Alarmed by this struggle for power, the Ministry of Finance, still a major shareholder of the bank, started to interfere. Just after a successful public offering, these kind of practices are the last things you want to happen. Zoutendijk was summoned to the Ministry, where Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem made it crystal clear to her that she would not succeed Zalm. Her job was to find a successor, not to be one. However, Zoutendijk seems to be preparing in the shadows anyway. Under her leadership, the committee that searches for a successor to Zalm disqualifies both crown princes, Vogelzang and Wijn. She probably hopes to come out as the winner.

The end result
In the end, the man who had silently been waiting in the shadow came out on top: Kees van Dijkhuizen. He was to become the bank’s new CEO. So what happened to Zoutendijk? Critique on her had been growing over the months and her position had become unattainable. Zalm left the bank in seemingly good shape. Zoutendijk lost the war she started herself, she overplayed her hand. Van Dijkhuizen took his opportunity to be the highest leader. It is now up to him to lead the bank to new heights, and do so under supervision of Tom de Swaan. Let us hope he will keep his distance. We wish them both luck.

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