Flights with empty private jets hastened the downfall of António Horta-Osório, president of Credit Suisse

After moving to Zurich last spring to lead Credit Suisse Group AG

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as chairman, António Horta-Osório flew to London and Lisbon for work meetings and corporate events, then spent time with his family at home.

Several times, a private plane, paid for by Credit Suisse, dropped him off on a Thursday and returned to Switzerland empty, according to people familiar with the travel. On Monday, a plane had picked up Mr Horta-Osório for his work in Zurich.

The empty flights were identified in a company assessment of his trip, which also identified Covid-19 quarantine breaches in Switzerland and the UK. A person close to Mr Horta-Osório said the planes had been rented and could not wait for the weekend. The person added that the banking rules for the use of aircraft were not violated.

The travelogue became fodder for Credit Suisse officials who pushed for Mr Horta-Osório’s departure and caused his fellow board members to refuse to support him, people familiar with the board said. The bank announced its resignation earlier this week.

Credit Suisse’s headquarters in Zurich. The bank was founded in 1856 by a Swiss entrepreneur to promote trade.


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ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS

Mr Horta-Osório had promised to heal a badly injured Credit Suisse. He joined weeks after a twin client collapse — Greensill Capital and Archegos Capital Management — shook the bank. The Portuguese-born banker had a reputation for getting odd jobs done. He was awarded a British knighthood for the restructuring of Lloyds Banking Group PLC after the financial crisis.

During his short tenure at Credit Suisse, Mr. Horta-Osório led a broad decline in risk-taking and helped recruit new executives.

He also insulted longtime executives with attacks on Credit Suisse’s practices, fees and litigation strategies, according to people familiar with the bank. Known for his demanding style, some board members received complaints about how Mr. Horta-Osório spoke to staff and about instances where people felt uncomfortable that he sometimes didn’t wear a mask at the bank despite Covid-19 related rules, people familiar with the board said.

The price Mr Horta-Osório paid was leaked information about his aircraft use and quarantine violations to the Swiss and international press, which preceded his resignation.

António Horta-Osório and several family members saw Novak Djokovic beat Matteo Berrettini in the Wimbledon tennis final.


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Pool/Getty Images

A whole day of sports in July also stood out for the board, according to the board’s acquaintances. Mr Horta-Osório and several family members watched Novak Djokovic beat Matteo Berrettini in the Wimbledon tennis final and then traveled to Wembley Stadium in north London to watch Italy beat England in the UEFA European Football Championship final.

The tickets had been bought for customers who dropped out at the last minute, he told the bank, people familiar with his travels said. The total bill for the day was in the tens of thousands of dollars, according to public ticket prices.

Mr Horta-Osório was banned from going out in coronavirus-restricted England when he attended the two events. He had flown into the country, mistakenly assuming that Credit Suisse had exempted him from a 10-day quarantine, according to the person close to Mr Horta-Osório.

Credit Suisse was founded in 1856 by a Swiss entrepreneur to promote trade. By the turn of the millennium, it had become a force on Wall Street and in high-growth Asian markets, paying huge dividends to shareholders.

Then a wave of scandal hit. Civil cases related to toxic mortgages in the US have cost billions in settlements in recent years. A unit in the US last year pleaded guilty to defrauding investors in an $850 million debt deal for a Mozambique state-owned company.

Former Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam resigned in 2020 after being unable to contain the reputational damage of an espionage scandal.


Photo:

fabrice coffrini/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Another mr. Fix-it who came through London, former Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam, resigned in 2020 after failing to contain the reputational damage of an espionage scandal when a former top executive found out the bank was following him.

On his first day, April 30, Mr. Horta-Osório publicly that the bank’s problems went beyond anything he’d experienced at a company.

The words sounded like an insult to bankers, merchants and other employees who considered themselves guardians of Credit Suisse’s unusual Swiss-American DNA of competence and discretion, according to current and former bank employees.

Mr Horta-Osório brought in key lieutenants and rolled out his Lloyds playbook. He set out to establish Credit Suisse’s global presence and met personal staff, customers, investors and regulators.

He raced to New York, Qatar, Singapore and London from his new base in Zurich, with visits also to Spain and Portugal, which are traditionally not big markets for Credit Suisse. He addressed a Portuguese banking conference in Lisbon one day in November, then flew to London to interview a job applicant.

The journey, by private plane, seemed justified to those around Mr Horta-Osório as he built trust and showed commitment.

In late November, the Omicron coronavirus variant flared up in the UK. Switzerland imposed a quarantine on travelers from the country, trapping Mr Horta-Osório on a journey back from London. Through a health consultant who worked with Credit Suisse, he applied for an exemption from the government so he could go to the office for meetings, according to those familiar with his travels. The exemption was refused and a few days later Mr Horta-Osório went to meetings in Madrid, unaware that Swiss rules did not allow people quarantined to leave.

He only realized his mistake when details of the trip appeared in the Swiss newspaper Blick, the person close to him said.

Switzerland has a complex social and business rulebook that is difficult for newcomers to crack. A life of wealth and privilege is allowed for those who succeed, but it should never make headlines or be put on display in times of crisis, according to people who have worked at the bank. Also: follow the rules.

Specific to Credit Suisse, according to the people who worked there, is to behave impeccably in Switzerland, where Credit Suisse is a ubiquitous corporate and retail bank.

Some in the higher echelons were alarmed by the changes made by Mr. Horta-Osório.

There were rumors that Eric Varvel, a 31-year veteran of the bench, was leaving. He had been the head of the wealth management unit that managed $10 billion in investment funds with Greensill. The funds had to be frozen when Greensill went bankrupt. Credit Suisse is trying to get all the money back for fund investors.

But he was also seen as a legend within the bank for guarding his home with a bat during riots in Indonesia and for convincing investors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to pump billions of dollars into Credit Suisse during the 2008 financial crisis. , according to people familiar with his career.

Chief Executive Thomas Gottstein was the one who told Mr Varvel to go, but it was Mr Horta-Osório who made it clear it had to be done, according to people familiar with the bank. Mr Varvel’s departure was announced on December 20.

Tensions were also mounting with the bank’s general adviser, Romeo Cerutti, who has held the top legal position since 2009, according to people familiar with the tensions. Mr Horta-Osório considered the lawyer damaged since he had been through a number of crises at the bank, some people said.

Credit Suisse staff collected pages of Mr Horta-Osório’s flight logs and expenses and handed them over to law firms for travel review. The information was also shared with Swiss regulators. News of his whereabouts began to appear in the Swiss press. This included landing in the Maldives to vacation with his wife on their way back from a business trip in Singapore.

Mr Horta-Osório left Singapore the day before so that another director could join him and catch the plane back to Zurich, said Mr Horta-Osório’s close relative.

Credit Suisse’s general counsel, Romeo Cerutti, has held the senior legal position since 2009.


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Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

Just after Christmas, Reuters reported that Credit Suisse discovered he had violated quarantine while at Wimbledon. Board members who gave Mr Horta-Osório a pass on the incident in Switzerland were disappointed, according to those familiar with the board.

Severin Schwan, the leading independent director at Credit Suisse, is the CEO of Roche Holding AG

, raising the bar for him to rule the issue as head of a health company. Mr. Schwan helped set the tone for other board members by considering the violations serious, according to those familiar with the board.

Horta-Osório’s use of the private jet and attending the sporting events also made some board members uncomfortable. Some felt that Mr Horta-Osório was not fully transparent about his actions, according to those familiar with the administration.

Credit Suisse had a potential successor in the wings. On January 17, the board of directors appointed a new chairman, Axel Lehmann, a Swiss former UBS director who joined Credit Suisse’s board of directors in October.

write to Margot Patrick at margot.patrick@wsj.com and Emily Glazer at emily.glazer@wsj.com

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