Frédéric Oudéa: “I will leave with my head held high”

You announced Tuesday evening your decision not to run for a new mandate. How did you make this decision?

In this kind of decision, I integrated many elements: first, in priority the interest of the group, but also personal considerations. I thought, thought a lot and I came to the conclusion that it was probably time for me to give way to another person. Next year, when I leave the group, I will be almost 60 years old. It was obvious that I could not stay at Société Générale for ten more years.

However, this is the time required to deploy the group’s new economic model. So my decision not to run for a new term gives the Board the opportunity to choose a new leader who can carry the future of the group over time.

It is really necessary to measure the degree of requirement of the job of leader on a daily basis, in particular in the bank where the degree of complexity, of regulatory framework, of personal commitment is particularly high. Bank boss, it has almost become a form of priesthood. I wondered if I wanted to apply again for a last term and have all the energy necessary for the requirements of this position, and my answer was no in the interest of the group.

When did you make this decision?

It’s a reflection I’ve had for many months but which has especially matured since the beginning of this year, with the incredible changes that have taken place in the world since that date. At the end of last year, I thought we were going to emerge from the pandemic and settle into a sustainable growth cycle.

Today, we unfortunately live in a much more complicated world than six months ago, with a new geopolitical and macroeconomic cycle that is likely to be difficult and uncertain. The consequences of the crisis linked to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine will no doubt last a long time and the risks of lasting inflation and therefore of an increase in interest rates could change a lot of things.

The group has also started a few projects…

In fact, and this is an integral part of my decision: Societe Generale will also enter a new cycle in a year. In the space of 18 months, we have taken major decisions that will transform the group in the long term: the merger of the Crédit du Nord and Société Générale networks to create a new retail bank in France, which will be effective in the first half of 2023; the continued growth of Boursorama with the integration of ING France customers; the acquisition of LeasePlan by ALD at the end of the year to create a new car leasing giant. However, all these projects must be completed in the first half of 2023 and in one year the group’s new business model will therefore be in place.

Bank boss, it’s almost become a form of priesthood

On a personal level, you might have wanted to continue the adventure?

In addition to the change of environment, the personal dimension also counted in my choice. When you approach 60, the biological clock reminds you. I don’t have the same outlook on life as when I was 45. My wish is to engage in a third professional stage over the next 10 years and to do something different with less constraints and more freedom.

So next year will probably be a good time for a change. I didn’t want to cling to my position or my status as general manager. I didn’t want to be caught in some sort of trap that I couldn’t get out of.

After 14 years at the head of Societe Generale, after having experienced extraordinary crises, I asked myself: will you still have this capacity for permanent questioning that the position of CEO requires? My honest answer was that it wasn’t certain. So I prefer to leave my place and embark on a new adventure.

Which ?

I am very open. It could be finance, at the head of a company in another sector, in the public sphere… I still have time to think about it, but one thing is certain: I want to continue trying to be useful as I hope this is the case today.

Politics might interest you?

The public sphere, in general, has always interested me and I remind you that I come from there. I could imagine a role that could contribute to public service but politics is unlikely. Going into a business like a bank is a form of service to the public. Politics is a very difficult and demanding world, but it will have to manage crucial issues. We have also entered a different era for the functioning of our democracies.

You don’t want to become Chairman of the Board of Societe Generale?

No, I did not consider it because in a bank, governance requirements mean that a former general manager cannot immediately be an independent chairman. This is a practice which, to my knowledge, no longer exists in banking in Europe. It was therefore totally excluded.

What is your assessment of your term as head of the group?

It is much too early to draw up my balance sheet. I haven’t left and we’ll see in a year after my departure. The question that must then be asked is: is Societe Generale’s model the right one to continue to develop in this new world? If all goes well, in a year, this bank will have never been so solid with, for example, a reinvented retail bank in France and a diversified and less risky wholesale banking activity.

Yes, there have been adaptations, disposals, a perimeter that has been able to evolve. But we have also developed assets such as Boursorama and ALD for example, we have been able to be pioneers in anticipating major trends. We have therefore laid the foundations for a new, more resilient and more balanced economic model to ensure profitable and sustainable growth.

If all goes well, a year from now this bank will have never been stronger

In fourteen years at the head of the group, what has been your worst memory?

Probably the Eurozone crisis, when unfounded rumors circulated that the bank was going to fail. In the summer of 2011, I had to appear on CNN in August, live from my vacation spot in the south of France, to explain that all the rumors were false. It was a moment that marked me.

How did the bank’s board react to your decision to leave next year? Did you still have their support from all the administrators?

I have an exceptional level of dialogue and trust with the board. We discussed this very calmly. In the past, there have obviously been debates, strategic discussions, and that’s perfectly normal, but the board has always supported me. As evidenced by the important decisions taken in September 2020, when we initiated the many strategic projects currently in progress.

Aren’t you worried that your estate will create a bit of uncertainty?

Don’t forget that I’m still at the helm for another year in a period that is likely to be turbulent, especially with future decisions by central banks on rates. Afterwards, I will support the board’s decision-making process. Of course, there will be a bit of uncertainty for six months, but the bank’s business model is settled. I will leave with great serenity, with my head held high if all the strategic projects are completed on time and of course if the succession process is successful.

What form will this process take?

The board told me that they wanted to open up the most comprehensive process possible, with internal candidate evaluation and external benchmarking. Some board members have done this kind of research in the past for other companies. The goal is to identify my successor in six months to be able to operate a six-month transition and pass the torch in an orderly fashion.

Six months is fast to find someone…

The process is not that complicated. Externally, the board will not look for a candidate outside the banking sector because the supervisor would probably oppose it for the management of a systemic bank. We also set up a new management team internally in September 2020. It is not the result of chance: the people who are part of it are among the best possible successors. The proof, this management team has been delivering very good results for eighteen months!

The goal is to identify my successor in six months to be able to operate a six-month transition

So your successor will come from this team?

It’s up to the council to decide. In my opinion, the most important thing is to appoint a person who has time in front of him, the duration to act. I tend to think, moreover, that the internal counts a lot in this house, which has a very strong culture. But it is good governance that the council also wishes to open the process to the outside world.

You are going to present a new strategic plan in the summer. So this will be the roadmap for your successor?

The advice was very clear: there is no change in strategy at stake, but rather to draw the full potential of our new economic model in the coming years. The roadmap is clear. The objective of the presentation of our financial outlook for 2025 is above all to specify the objectives in terms of capital and profitability.

You have just finalized the sale of Rosbank to Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin, with a heavy accounting loss. Shouldn’t we have left Russia before?

I was convinced that the common interest of Europe and Russia was to forge strong and lasting economic ties. We have brought Rosbank to the highest standards of a modern bank. The results were good. And then, at the start of the year, we are facing an extreme geopolitical shock. With the sale to Interros, we will certainly record a net loss of 3.2 billion euros, but the impact on capital is low because with this sale we will reduce our risk exposure by 15 billion euros.

In addition, we received an amount that exceeds the repayment of subordinated debt by approximately $600 million. In short, we are carrying out an orderly and responsible exit that limits collateral impacts.

But as Patrick Pouyanné, the boss of TotalEnergies, says, by leaving the country, we are thus making a gift to Vladimir Poutine and his friends…

The challenge was to act quickly and remove a sword of Damocles that weighed on the group. It’s a painful page to turn, but we were able to manage it without a very penalizing impact for the group.

How to stay in Russia? A bank is not an activity like any other. We cannot suspend activity for 6 months. And we also had to apply international sanctions with the risk of Russian counter-sanctions. The situation required us to find a responsible and orderly exit solution, as all the international banks have announced: it’s done.

Better to sell quickly then, even to an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin?

Again, for the bank, this was the best option. There were very few possible alternatives. Vladimir Potanin, the boss of Interros is the former owner of the bank, and knows Rosbank very well. We very quickly obtained the agreements of the Russian authorities, the Central Bank of Russia and the Russian competition authorities. The European and American authorities were also informed very early.

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