“I've Had to Think Differently”
Bloomberg Markets|December 2020 - January 2021
IN SEPTEMBER, Jane Fraser shattered the financial industry’s ultimate glass ceiling when she was named the next chief executive officer of Citigroup Inc., one of the world’s three most important banks.
JENNY SURANE

Weeks later, she was saddled with regulatory homework by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which said the bank must update its technology and systems to better manage risk.

¶ Born in Scotland, the 53-year-old Fraser comes to the job with a gold-plated résumé: degrees from Cambridge and Harvard and career stops at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and McKinsey & Co. before she joined Citigroup in 2004. There she served under three CEOs as the New York-based megabank grappled with losses, bailouts, and strategic repositioning during the Great Recession and its aftermath. She helped as the company disposed of almost half of its assets and cut tens of thousands of jobs, an experience she says will guide her in managing future challenges.

¶ As she prepares to take over in February, Fraser says she is planning to invest in some of the bank’s largest businesses, including its sprawling custody network and its burgeoning wealth management effort. In mid-November, as Covid-19 cases were spreading rapidly, she spoke with Bloomberg Markets via videoconference from her office in New York about her career and her thoughts on the future of finance.

JENNY SURANE: To start, I’m very curious what it’s been like to experience this huge career change at a crazy time like this. It’s probably not what you were expecting.

JANE FRASER: It is an interesting time because I think Covid has changed quite a few things. It has certainly accelerated digitization. It’s changed the structures of our clients’ industries. It’s changing our own industry faster than we thought would happen. So you’re trying to bring a fresh perspective to what the firm will be focused on in terms of strategy, but also thinking about our people, thinking about the macro environment, those other dimensions. It’s sort of been a confluence of good timing to think all of those things through.

But I also think it’s been quite a divisive period. We’re certainly worried there’s a bit of a K-shaped recovery coming out of Covid. Banks are going to play a very important role in helping to drive the recovery. We do anticipate it to be quite sluggish. We’re certainly seeing it in consumer [banking]: You’ve got the “haves” and you’ve got those who are really struggling. I think it goes to that sense of, what are the values of the industry? How do we make sure we’re part of the solution? Not just from the financial market perspective. I think we all learned many lessons out of the last crisis about what a bank really is and [the role it] needs to play.

So it’s digital. It’s about humanity. There’s obviously the ESG [environmental, social, and governance] agenda, but in a real way—not a plaque on the wall or just nice statements. And Mike [Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat] has given me a huge gift in terms of a good time of transition. He’s been a leader of such integrity in the bank. His legacy is going to be thought of in [terms of ] where we were coming out of the crisis to where we are today— it has been pretty remarkable. Big shoes to fill. The apprenticeship I have had with him over the last couple of months and going forward has been very helpful because it means it’s not such a jolting transition for the firm.

JS: I was hoping we could also go way back and talk about your upbringing in Scotland. You’re only the second Citi CEO born outside the U.S. after Vikram Pandit, who was born in India. Does that give you a different perspective?

JF: We’re a very global bank. We’re firmly American, but we’re also very global. I actively chose to come and live in the States. But on the other hand, I come with the perspective of someone who’s lived all over the world and who’s seen the good, the bad, and the ugly around that.

I don’t think it makes a huge difference for Citi because a lot of the people’s careers in Citi have been in different businesses all around the world. I look at the management team and, you know, it’s a veritable United Nations. It is more of a global mindset. Globalization has had a bad rap of late. But there’s good and bad in everything. The global mindset is a positive one because it does make you not just think you’ve got a monopoly on the best way of doing things. You do tend to be very curious about how things are being done in other places. And that’s a lot of the mindset in the firm, and it’s a great one.

JS: Could you take me back to why you decided to join Citi in 2004 from McKinsey?

JF: Yeah, I think there were a couple of things. When I became partner at McKinsey, I worked part-time all the years of my partnership. The kids were little, and my husband was sort of at the peak hard work part of his career as well. He’s 11 years older than me, as I like to remind him constantly. He says it makes him more wise. At that point [in 2004], the kids were at school, they were settled, and I was ready to go back full time. I loved McKinsey, but I was ready to not just advise but to actually do. I wanted to see if I could actually do rather than just write the presentation.

And what I loved about Citi is the globality of the place. It was similar to McKinsey—that global mindset of people from all over the world with different points of view and complicated, fascinating opportunities and issues to solve for clients.

It is a company that really helped companies and individuals to grow globally and to access global markets. What’s truly unique about the firm is that it doesn’t just do so out of global hubs, that it does so locally as well and really has an impact on the ground.

And I see it on different dimensions. We’ve given microfinance [loans] now to 3 million women around the world. It’s happening at the grassroots level in countries all over the world, and it’s not a number you hear as often, but it’s a huge number. If you’re going to enable progress, a lot of this happens at a community level and at the local level. And I love the fact that we’re able to do both. Do the big global impacts, but also have the impact locally. It’s a bit quieter, but it’s often more impactful in some ways.

JS: Are there key moments from your career that you think really prepared you for this next role?

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