When Christian Sewing attended a conference for bond investors at a luxury hotel outside London last week, he invited one of Deutsche Bank’s clients to give a presentation to the attendees.
The executive he brought along was not a hedge fund manager or a freewheeling real estate developer, but rather Klaus Rosenfeld, head of Schaeffler Group, one of the world’s leading suppliers of ball bearings and car parts.
According to those in the room, the message could not have been clearer: after more than two decades during which the lender tried to become a European rival to Wall Street titans such as Goldman Sachs, Mr Sewing wants to return Deutsche to its roots as a bank for large corporates in Germany and beyond.
The transformation will not be easy. Mr Sewing will soon unveil one of the most ambitious restructurings of a global bank since the financial crisis, complete with up to 20,000 job cuts and a radical downsizing of Deutsche’s ailing trading business.
He hopes that a smaller, more focused Deutsche will be able to boost paltry profitability after years of poor performance while dispelling nagging questions about whether the bank has a long-term future.
Colleagues say the 49-year-old — who has spent almost his entire career at Deutsche — is deadly serious about making the deep cuts that several of his predecessors contemplated but failed to deliver.
“If someone is able to come to grips with Deutsche Bank’s situation, it’s him,” says Mr Rosenfeld.
A talented tennis player and avid Bayern Munich football fan, Mr Sewing in his youth harboured hopes of becoming a sports journalist. But his father urged him to pursue something more solid. In 1989, he joined Deutsche as an apprentice at a branch in the Westphalian town of Bielefeld.
“Back then, the ethos at Deutsche Bank was that everyone always strived to be the best,” he once said. On his first day, a superior told Mr Sewing that Deutsche apprentices were expected to get the best marks in regional exams: he did not disappoint.
With the exception of a two year hiatus at a co-operative lender in Hamburg, Mr Sewing has stayed at Deutsche ever since. Now married with four children, he worked his way up through a series of roles in the legal department before becoming head of the retail unit — and an obvious candidate for future chief executive.
“You could commission him with any task, even a highly complex one, and be sure things would run smoothly, that nothing would go pear-shaped,” recalls Hugo Bänziger, a former chief risk officer at Deutsche and Mr Sewing’s erstwhile boss.
Friends and colleagues describe Mr Sewing as a demanding, methodical manager who obsesses over punctuality and has little time for small talk. “If you have a time slot you stick to it, and you get straight to the point,” says one former executive.
Unlike many of his counterparts at rival banks, Mr Sewing has little direct experience of the trading floor, where critics say camaraderie and the pursuit of large annual bonuses has taken precedence over stability and investor returns.
“Within Deutsche there’s been this sense of loyalty because people who were in the trading ranks had too much of a good lifestyle, so no one ever wanted to take tough decisions” says Davide Serra of Algebris Investments, a Deutsche bondholder.
As a veteran of Deutsche’s legal department, colleagues say Mr Sewing has sometimes taken a dim view of the lender’s investment bank, which has been the source of a string of expensive scandals.
On a holiday shortly before he became CEO in 2018, he sketched out a vision for a different Deutsche, which would return to glory by becoming less reliant on traders in London and New York.
While 20,000 job losses certainly sounds dramatic, some doubters fear that Mr Sewing’s cuts will not go deep enough. One former executive says Mr Sewing should shut the bank’s Wall Street operation altogether and pull out of most types of trading.
“Based on everything I’ve heard so far, I don’t find anything particularly radical,” the person says.
A second challenge is that while Mr Sewing’s lack of trading experience makes him less emotionally attached to the business, it also means he must rely heavily on advisers as he attempts the tricky task of shrinking unprofitable activities without choking off parts of the lender he wants to preserve.
“I see a potential gap of knowledge that can’t be breached in the short-term,” says another former executive, who nonetheless insists that Mr Sewing must press ahead. “At this point, it’s better to take action rather than wait for another three years to try to get it perfect.”
After a looming management reshuffle that will result in a smaller executive board manned by confidants loyal to Mr Sewing, he will become one of the most powerful CEOs in the country.
“The new management board will be totally geared to him,” says one regulator, who warned that while the bank needs a powerful CEO, it now has a key-man risk. “If he gets hit by a bus tomorrow, we’d have a real problem.”
The writers are the FT’s banking editor and Frankfurt correspondent