Time will tell if Citi’s chairman is right fit

Time will tell if Citi’s chairman is right fit

The board of Citigroup Inc. deserves praise for separating the chairman and chief executive roles between Win Bischoff and Vikram Pandit.

Steering the financial behemoth out of rough waters was arguably too big a job for any one pilot. And Pandit’s limited experience outside investment banking made him too risky a choice to hold both titles.

Nonetheless, Citi’s choice of chairman leaves something to be desired.

It’s not that Bischoff’s a lightweight. The German-born, South Africa-educated Englishman led the venerable merchant bank Schroders Plc. and exudes the kind of global gravitas befitting Citi’s aspirations. That’s why the Queen knighted him seven years ago.

But his experience doesn’t obviously complement Pandit’s own as head of Morgan Stanley’s institutional securities business. Sure, the bulk of Citi’s problems lie within its investment bank now. But it would have been ideal to have a chairman with experience in the retail arena, where problems are likely to emerge in a future economic slowdown.

Moreover, though nobody would call Bischoff an acolyte of Sandy Weill, who built Citi through decades of dealmaking— he’s hardly an outsider. He sold Schroders to Weill and stayed on. That makes him only slightly less obviously cut from the Weill cloth than other contenders for the job, such as former consumer bank boss Robert Willumstad.

Finally, it’s hard to see how Bischoff can devote sufficient time to the job. For one thing, he’s based in London. The city may be New York’s co-equal as a banking centre, but it’s still 3,458 miles from Park Avenue.

Bischoff also sits on five other boards, ranging from Turkey’s Akbank TAS and Britain’s Prudential Plc. to The McGraw-Hill Cos Inc. Though known as a workaholic, he will obviously need to scale back these commitments to focus on Citi’s considerable needs.

You’d think some current and former bosses of big retail banks might have been in the running. Maybe they wouldn’t take the job. Either way, bringing Bischoff in isn’t the worst outcome for Citi. But it’s hardly the perfect solution, either.