Citigroup: Has Hope Come in the Form of New Directors?

Mar.24.09 | About: Citigroup Inc. (C)

For years, the scale of the disaster that is Citigroup (NYSE:C) has been something to behold.

The company was run at first by an empire builder, then by two bright non-bankers completely unsuited to the task of managing a monstrosity of such size and reach. Below them toiled middle managers in a bureaucracy that seems to have no end. Some of those managers are competent, others, not so much. But it all added up to vast, costly, unmanageable organization that didn’t do anything particularly well, except regularly engineer major compliance screwups around the globe. Too big to fail, too big to manage.

It would be hard to try to purposely design an organization more dysfunctional. Worse, it was all overseen by an incompetent board of directors that allowed Bob Rubin to manipulate them into failure

But, finally--some hope! Citigroup has nominated four new directors who all actually know something about running a bank:

Jerry Grundhofer, former CEO of U.S. Bancorp., the country’s biggest bank by assets. Finally, someone who knows something about banking

Michael O'Neill, former CEO of Bank of Hawaii and, before that, CFO of Bank of America. At Bank of Hawaii, O’Neill engineered perhaps the most successful bank turnaround of the past two decades.

Anthony Santomero, ex-head of the Philadelphia Fed, an intelligent reasonable player.

William S. Thompson, former co-head of Pimco. Finally, someone who understands investments.

All four of these individuals are serious, competent men who’ll bring thoughtful oversight to an organization that’s been lacking any for way too long. I wish the new team luck—and offer some advice. First, remember that hope is not a plan. For positive change to happen at Citi, some heads are going to have to be knocked together. It won’t be enough to wait for the macro environment two improve. In the meantime, listen to everything you hear from management with a high degree of skepticism. (If management were as plugged in as it should be, the company wouldn’t be in the pickle it’s in.) And try to build a sustainable business model that’s based on Citigroup’s strengths, and that isn’t some echo of what you think Goldman Sachs might be up to.

The arrival of Citi’s new directors doesn’t mean that a turnaround at the company is imminent. But at last pieces are being put in place that can be the groundwork of a long-term recovery. Change won’t likely come in a hurry. But this is a start--and a promising one.

The real solution is to dismember this monstrosity that has failed multiple times.