Zurich Insurance Group Chairman Josef Ackermann abruptly quit on Thursday morning, saying the family of the firm's late finance chief felt he should shoulder some of the responsibility for the executive's apparent suicide.
The resignation comes days after Pierre Wauthier, the insurance giant's chief financial officer, was found dead at his home south of Zurich, Switzerland – in what authorities believe was likely a suicide.
Ackermann indicated that the late CFO's family felt he held some responsibility for the death, he explained in a statement released by Zurich Insurance to the press, although he didn't elaborate.
“I have reasons to believe the family is of the opinion that I should take my share of responsibility, as unfounded as any allegations might be,” Ackermann said in the statement, adding that he was resigning to avoid any damage to Zurich's reputation.
Wauthier's death came just weeks after the head of telecom firm Swisscom, Carsten Schloter, died in another apparent suicide. The deaths have shocked corporate Switzerland and prompted calls for greater support for boardroom big-wigs.
Ackermann's departure comes 18 months after he was appointed chairman at Zurich Insurance following roughly a decade running Deutsche Bank AG. The resignation and Wauthier's death come on the heels of two consecutive quarters of declining profits at Zurich Insurance, as well as signs that it was facing further challenges.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a person familiar with the situation said Ackermann's resignation took the company by surprise. On Wednesday, Ackermann announced his departure at an extraordinary meeting of the board of directors.
Speaking on Swiss television, Zurich Insurance Chief Executive Martin Senn said the company regretted Ackermann's decision to leave. Senn added the company's management was unaware of any disagreements between Ackerman and Wauthier.
"We have not noted any conflicts which could or should have led to such a death," Senn told reporters.
Ackermann was appointed as Zurich Insurance's chairman in March of last year, a move that was widely seen as beneficial to the insurance firm because of his prominence. But Zurich Insurance has struggled and delivered disappointing results since his appointment.
The revelation of Wauthier's death earlier this week drew attention to Zurich Insurance's challenges.
In May, Zurich Insurance posted a 7 per cent drop in profit for the first quarter, but assured investors it was on track to meet the targets it had set to achieve this year — such as boosting profitability at the general insurance business, its largest unit. Earlier this month, however, the company reported another decline in profit for the second quarter.
Zurich Insurance has confirmed that Vice Chairman Tom de Swaan will become acting chairman.