GENEVA (AP) – In life, Pierre Wauthier struck colleagues as genial and self-possessed — the sort of cool-under-pressure qualities needed as chief financial officer at one of the world’s biggest insurers.
In death, the former CFO’s allegations of discord at the top of Zurich Insurance Group, and of a toxic working relationship with chairman Josef Ackermann, have severely rattled the reputation of one of Europe’s leading business figures and a global brand with 60,000 employees.
Until he was found dead on Aug. 26 at his lakeside home in Walchwil, Switzerland, in what police have called an apparent suicide, Wauthier’s well-respected expertise, likable demeanor and enjoyment of hard work helped him navigate the intense daily pressures in the cross-hairs of top management.
Company spokesman Bjorn Emde described Wauthier as “a very nice person and much-liked. Colleagues liked him a lot”
Despite his calm exterior and good sense of humor, colleagues say Wauthier was becoming increasingly frustrated working with his new and demanding boss, Ackermann, a former Deutsche Bank chief who took over as Zurich’s chairman last year.
Without divulging details, the company said that a typed and signed note left behind by Wauthier, a 17-year veteran at Zurich and married father of two, describes his strained working relationship with its new chairman.
According to a Zurich official who has been briefed on the note — and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter — Wauthier accused Ackermann, a former Swiss Army colonel, of creating an unbearable work environment.
Wauthier went on to say in the note that he fought with Ackermann over how the company did its financial reporting, while being pressured on how the numbers should be presented — with Ackermann accusing Wauthier of playing down negative aspects of the company’s financial performance, the official said.
Ackermann dismissed the allegations Thursday as “incomprehensible,” while acknowledging that he never formed a strong relationship with Wauthier: “I knew him far too little.”
In the days after his body was discovered, Wauthier’s widow told the company that she considered Ackermann at least partly responsible for his husband’s death. The chairman quickly resigned, saying he was shocked by the family’s accusations. In a statement, he called the allegations “unfounded,” but said he was stepping aside to avoid further damage to the company.
On Thursday, while disclosing that he was stepping down from the board of another company — Siemens AG, over a dispute about the company’s new CEO — Ackermann acknowledged that he believed Zurich wasn’t performing the way it should and he felt the company needed to more transparency in its financial reports. The company had been struggling and had recently reported an 18 percent drop in quarterly profits.
“I also … demanded that we paint a very honest picture, especially in the conclusions and don’t just pretend that everything is going well,” Ackermann said.