The text message sounded innocuous, and certainly not like the watershed it heralded. “Can you call me on Saturday morning?” Citigroup chief executive Mike Corbat wrote to Jane Fraser, his number two, on a Friday evening in early September.
Fraser, a 53-year-old Scot who had been named the bank’s president a year earlier, had just driven five hours from her house in Wyoming to Montana for a weekend of fly fishing with her husband, Bert. Bert was “all excited” about it, she protested, when Corbat asked her to return to Wyoming for dinner with him and his wife.
But what Corbat then said to her — “You need to come back because I’ve decided that now is the right time to actually retire . . . and I’m going to need to talk to you about that” — would prove revolutionary and ultimately elevate Fraser’s position as his successor from theoretical to imminent.
In February 2021, she will become the first female chief executive of a major Wall Street bank, overseeing a behemoth with more than 200,000 employees spread across almost 100 countries and a market value in excess of $110bn.
On that weekend, Citi’s chairman, John Dugan, joined them in Wyoming and voiced his support for the handover. Fraser, a Cambridge and Harvard graduate, says she did not count her chickens until a vote of the board the following Wednesday.
“I did call them up after the board meeting and say, ‘So…’” she laughs on a Zoom interview from Citi’s open-plan headquarters in downtown Manhattan, where views of the Freedom Tower, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are ample compensation for not having an actual office.
Fraser laughs and jokes a surprising amount for someone who will soon have the pressure of running one of America’s biggest banks, along with the extra load of being a flag-bearer for female advancement through Wall Street’s highest ranks. Her dry, self-deprecating humour has been a foundational part of a 30-plus-year career in which she chose standing out even as many women struggled to fit in.
“I think being a woman has been helpful,” she says about her leadership style. “You are a bit different from [other] leaders, immediately you look different. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that you can therefore play the game differently, you’ve almost got licence to have more degrees of freedom, and that’s been fun.”
Playing the game differently meant leaning into her love of office pranks. It also meant working part-time when she was a partner at management consultancy McKinsey with two young sons while her husband Bert Piedra, former head of global banking at Dresdner Kleinwort, was in a “much more senior role”, and speaking publicly about feeling “exhausted” and “guilty” from her efforts to manage both a career and a family.
And, thanks to a revelatory stint working in Spain as a junior banker for Goldman Sachs, it meant casting off black suits and “drab grey coats” for something closer to the “dramatic and colourful clothes” local women wore. “They were themselves . . . and they were powerful and they were feminine,” says Fraser, who today is wearing a bright red dress, though it is mostly hidden on Zoom.
She was taken aback by how much attention there was when her promotion was unveiled, triggering a flurry of publicity about the shattering of Wall Street’s ultimate glass ceiling. “I hadn’t been thinking of it in those terms,” she says, though she reconciled herself to the spotlight when she realised it could inspire others.
She had some help from corporate America’s sisterhood in the form of Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors, who told Fraser that she should “embrace” the focus on her gender because it aided progress, and then spend the rest of her time focused on her job. “Because at the end of the day,” Fraser says, “the most important thing is, can I do a good job in the day job?”
The day job officially begins when Corbat, who crosses the background of our Zoom call several times, ends his eight-year run as Citi’s chief executive. His departure will leave Fraser running one of America’s biggest banks just as lenders begin their reckoning with the billions of dollars of defaults that the stop-start recessions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have probably caused.
She will also have major structural work to do. Citi was fined $400m by US regulators for failing to correct “longstanding deficiencies” in systems that were meant to prevent embarrassing and costly mistakes such as of its money to a client’s creditors, as Citi did in August.
Fraser has spent the best part of the past decade cultivating the skills and relationships to prepare her for the challenges of being chief executive, a path she started on after Citi’s then boss Vikram Pandit asked her what her career plan was. “I quickly put one together and put it in front of him, and he just shook his head and said, ‘You’re thinking about this all wrong,’” she says.
Pandit gave her what she describes as “one of those game-changer pieces of advice”: “Stop thinking about what are the roles that will get you to a more senior position and start thinking what are the roles that will give you the experiences so that you will be successful in that senior position.”
Her progress was quick, moving from heading Citi’s private bank to leading its mortgage business through the subprime crisis to running Latin America, one of Citi’s most important markets. She has certainly noticed a difference between corporate cultures in the US and UK. “The external network of senior women that I’ve been able to develop since being in the US has been a big point of distinction,” she says. “They’ve provided me with sage guidance and sometimes the tough advice that helps one up one’s game, while at the same time providing strong support and encouraging me on.”
Now the moment is here, she is resolutely upbeat about what she must do, even when it comes to the “consent order” slapped on Citi by its top regulators in the US. This, along with the $400m fine, was one of the toughest penalties ever handed down in such a situation and requires a costly and far-reaching overhaul of the bank’s sprawling risk and operations systems. “Never miss the opportunities afforded by consent orders to really galvanise an organisation,” Fraser says, describing how much of what was ordered will “accelerate” things that Citi already had planned.
It won’t be Fraser’s first rehabilitation job — she set Citi’s Mexican subsidiary Banamex right after a controls failure that triggered $100m in fines — but the stakes are much higher this time. The crisis strikes at the heart of systems that run all through the bank, and the regulators cracking the whip are the ones who issue Citi’s main licences.
“Some of the elements are obviously around core safety and soundness. I don’t want to minimise them in any way,” she says, displaying the deference that US regulators like to hear from the companies they oversee.
Getting a firm handle on the problems with risk will play well with Citi’s investors, but Fraser knows their demands go deeper. They want a stronger sense of how the diverse businesses in Citi’s portfolio — including a global investment bank, a retail banking network in the US and its sizeable operations in Latin America — hang together as a single strategy that will make them money.
There is also, of course, the pandemic and its fallout among the millions of individuals and companies that Citi counts as its customers. Fraser worries about a “K-shaped recovery” — economist-speak for a rebound among some industries and individuals while others languish.
Women of the Year 2020
From politicians and novelists to scientists and activists, the FT profiles this year’s game-changing women. Here are some to watch out for:
December 3: Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission
December 3: Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan
December 3: Professor Sarah Gilbert, Oxford vaccinologist
December 4: Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy
December 4: Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter
True to form, she finds an upside in 2020’s mass working-from-home experiment. Logging on from her houses in New York and Wyoming, she appreciates the “authenticity” of Zoom — with dogs barking or children entering the shot — and its power to dispel the myth that anyone, including her, is living “these perfect lives [as shown] on Instagram . . . because that sure as heck isn’t reality”, she says. Like many others, she is concerned that the pandemic could set women back, especially those who have to stay at home with children who cannot attend school or day care.
Her crowded in-tray means she will have less time to spend on gender diversity, at least “to start off with”, though she will continue to be an advocate. “I won’t do it for Pollyanna-ish reasons,” she says. “I will use my seat as a woman to push it forward because I think it’s good for business . . . It makes for a healthier culture.”
Laura Noonan is the FT’s US banking editor
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The theme of this year’s FT Women at the Top event was Game Changers — highlighting individuals driving progress on gender equality in their industries and turning words into action. You can register to watch the UK or US sessions on demand:
Women at the Top UK
Women at the Top US