Close-up Ariane de Rothschild, Chairwoman of Edmond de Rothschild's Executive Committee
It erupts without warning – huge, honest, irresistible – a joyous note and a flash of enamel. In a split-second, Ariane de Rothschild's laughter makes the world disappear. Chairwoman of the Edmond de Rothschild Group's Executive Committee, this baroness with the look of a blonde Hitchcock heroine welcomes us in her plush office just a stone's throw away from the Elysée Palace. She laughs just like she manages her bank – with an energy that comes naturally to her. For a year now, this forceful woman has been the boss and symbol of the group founded by her father-in-law, Edmond de Rothschild. A challenge to those who had wanted to confine her to her role of shareholder, or send her back to a role as glamorous wife. A face-off with those who thought her incapable of heading up an institution that manages assets totalling €130 billion. And a personal challenge too for this audacious woman. "I had a moment's hesitation at first, but I quickly got over it".
A nomadic childhood
And yet she was no stranger to finance. "Many people are amazed at this and ask me if banking really interests me. That just makes me laugh", she scoffs. Ariane Langner, daughter of a French mother and German father, an executive in the pharmaceutical industry, had a globetrotting childhood, taking in Bangladesh, Mozambique and the former Zaire, never for more than five years at a time. After graduating from Sciences-Po and earning an MBA in New York, she began her career in banking. At 21, she joined Société Générale in New York as an analyst. She moved to US insurer AIG in 1990 where she was in charge of setting up the Paris subsidiary. Her career stops abruptly in 1993 when she meets a 31-year-old client with a famous surname, Benjamin de Rothschild. It's love at first sight. Son of Nadine, an actress turned etiquette expert, he takes over the reins of the private bank founded by his father Edmond in 1953.
From Paris to Lake Geneva
The couple sets up home in Paris. She devotes herself to bringing up their children – four daughters – and to activities outside the world of finance such as philanthropy and winemaking. He is at the helm of Compagnie Benjamin de Rothschild (CBR), a "bank within a bank" which he founded while waiting to take over from his father. "For an essentially free spirit, being the wife of a Rothschild and having to navigate the waters of a very conservative, unfamiliar world was a real challenge", admits childhood friend Firoz Ladak, head of the Group's philanthropic activities. After the death of Edmond, the couple move to Château de Prégny on the shores of Lake Geneva, where they marry in an intimate ceremony in 1999. The bride is eight months' pregnant. A brilliant man and visionary, Benjamin entrusts the three banks in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Paris to managers whom he makes partners. The Group increases its assets five-fold and runs a highly successful asset and wealth management business – two activities very unlike the world of M&A on which Benjamin's cousin David de Rothschild builds his own Paris empire.
In the mid-2000s, the financial crisis changes the rules of the game along with the top roles. In Switzerland, the Group's nerve centre, banking secrecy is under threat. In Europe, a huge wave of new regulations hits. It's time for the bank to adapt to these changes. Ariane shows she's willing to manage this period of change, while Benjamin gives up the day-to-day management of the firm in order to pursue his private interests. Ariane joins the Supervisory Board in 2008 and becomes Vice Chair in 2009.
A baroness among barons
Used to doing things their own way, CEOs don't look favourably on a woman stepping into their midst – especially when she's the wife of the Chairman. For several years, an undeclared war muffled by the thick green carpet that showcases the Rothschild's coat of arms pitches the baroness against the "barons". "Their mistake was to treat this very smart woman as a dumb blonde", observes an insider. And these obstacles only made the combative Ariane more determined. "I'm not bitter; I'm actually grateful to the "barons". It was a pitiless struggle – there was no free ride. Far from it. It was a real learning experience, which made me believe in myself and helped me become even more driven", Ariane considers. The war culminates in the departure of the bank's long-standing top managers: at the beginning of 2012 Michel Cicurel, who had headed up the bank's French operations for 13 years, leaves to found La Maison. Swiss citizen Claude Messulam also leaves the Group after 21 years, followed by Frédéric Otto, head of the Luxembourg business. Ariane takes this on board: "The company had to reinvent itself. After 20 years of growth, the same team could not manage the challenging period the banks were traversing. In a crisis, you need focused people with real human values". During these pivotal years, Ariane weaves her thread. First, she decides to bring the separate banks with different names under one banner: Edmond de Rothschild. To speed up the discussions relating to the US Tax Programme – which requires the bank to review and declare its US clients as negotiated with the authorities – she decides to change the bank's legal counsel. "A real decision from the top. Without that, the negotiations would undoubtedly have taken a different turn", says Jean Laurent-Bellue, Group director, admiringly.
A hyperactive boss
Ariane's chief aim is to make this cooperative of small rival banks work more efficiently. "She had no choice", emphasises Laurent-Bellue. The project is entrusted to Christophe de Backer, CEO of HSBC France, in April 2012. He introduces a new organisation in line with the shareholder's wishes. "He did all the dirty work", reveals a manager. "He laid the first stone of change – no easy feat", adds Ariane de Rothschild.
A slight understatement... In Edmond de Rothschild where staff go on feeling, the stiff, ironic style of Christophe de Backer, an officer's son used to the cogs of a large Anglo-Saxon corporation sits ill with the bank. The departure of a string of high-flying managers makes things worse and signifies the end for the CEO. The hyperactive nature of the Vice Chair does not help matters either. "It was a system where two people were boss" reveals a director, "one who was a shareholder and the other who wasn't". In January 2015, a dual announcement puts an end to the uncertainty: Christophe de Backer leaves and is to be replaced by ... Ariane de Rothschild – prompting a wave of relief among staff.
Who better to guarantee the bank's interests than one of the shareholders herself? "Everyone was wondering which boss we'd end up with", recalls Vincent Taupin, head of the French subsidiary. In actual fact, the arrival of the baroness at the helm surprised no one. For Maurice Lévy, Chairman of the Executive Board at Publicis and a family friend, it was even the most natural outcome".
The war of names
However Ariane de Rothschild really earns her stripes on 30 March 2015 when she brings an action against the other part of the Paris branch of the family, headed by cousin David de Rothschild. Whereas she has been at pains to give her brand greater clarity, she accuses David of monopolising the Rothschild name. The elegant investment banker has the unfortunate tendency to use the legendary family name without the "& Cie" suffix. The case gets wide media attention and internally, staff rally around their leader. "Staff discovered her combative nature", says Vincent Taupin. Offended by having learned of the court action in the media, David de Rothschild regrets that the case can't be settled by "talking". In fact, talks between the cousins and their lawyers had been dragging on for five years. "Confusion is helpful to no one", says Ariane de Rothschild, adding that the action is on-going. "Ariane looked hard at what the Rothschild name meant. She believes that for the iconic name to persist, it has to live and to chime fully with contemporary concerns", says Olivier Colom, Group Corporate Secretary.
So the baroness is not the impulsive woman her enemies make her out to be. "She doesn't stop at the surface but goes right to the heart of every matter", remarks Maurice Lévy. According to Ariane herself, "I may always be on the go, but I have also been highly focused for the last 25 years". No sooner had she taken the reins of the bank, she began an overhaul of information systems, an essential project for any banking group. "I spent a lot of time, understanding, discussing and looking at the various structures", she says. Her efforts will lead this year to "an important migration to IT platforms in Switzerland and Luxembourg".
There is never any question of letting someone else do the work. According to her CFO, Cynthia Tobiano, Ariane "is a workhorse and needs to fully understand the issues she is working on". A member of the Executive Committee since early 2014, Cynthia Tobiano previously worked for Goldman Sachs and at the age of 38, is a vital part of the younger, more female team built by Ariane de Rothschild. Unsurprisingly, the boss is more impressed by skills than qualifications: "These are people I can really rely on and whom I also chose for their human values". The new COO, Sabine Rabald, has 19 years' experience in the Group. However, this doesn't mean that Ariane de Rothschild is averse to outside hires. In late December, for example, she appointed Mathilde Lemoine, Head of Economic Research at HSBC France, as Group Chief Economist.
A taste for philanthropy
Determined to "breathe new life" into the company and bring it into the 21st century, Ariane de Rothschild takes the family's legacy on board by going back to its roots. "People have forgotten what's made this family great for over seven generations", she says. "Its ability to plan ahead, its flexibility and its capacity for taking risks". She has already proven her ability to transform another Rothschild legacy: philanthropy. Under her leadership, the 12 international foundations set up by Edmond de Rothschild have become more professional and have launched bold, innovative initiatives in the arts and education, always with a focus on the social element. Following a meeting with the mayor of Saint-Ouen, the baroness founded AIMS, a programme allowing young artists from the School of Fine Arts to receive a scholarship and work in Saint-Ouen schools. The group's private equity businesses also bear the mark of Ariane de Rothschild. Convinced that finance must serve a purpose, she has helped set up funds in new countries and pioneered innovative initiatives. These include Ginkgo, a fund focused on brownfield decontamination, and Amethis Finance, which invests in Africa.
The African focus reflects the broad-minded nature of this citizen of the world, whose very office is a travelogue: Isabel Muñoz's arresting photographs of South American gangs hang on the wall and modern vases by an Italian ceramic artist sit on a desk, surrounded by fabulous tribal headgear. "I can more easily imagine her barefoot in the Mozambique savannah than in high heels in a Parisian salon", exclaims Hugo Ferreira, former CEO of CBR. Fluent in five languages, she is at home with other cultures and able to adapt to any environment.
What they say about her
Maurice Lévy, Chairman of the Management Board of Publicis: "She is credible, meticulous and committed, and on a mission to defend the bank's heritage."
Véronique Morali, President of Fimalac Développement: "She has broadened horizons and the ways in which people see the Group. She has given it a good shake-up. She's a businesswoman, a fighter and a sensitive person with strong human values."
Laurent Dassault, COO of the Marcel Dassault Group: "She needed to take over. But she gives the impression of being very much alone."
Johnny El-Hachem, CEO of Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity: "She looks to reward talent on a daily basis. Like a football captain, she aims to bring us all together."
David de Rothschild, Statutory Managing Partner of Rothschild & Cie, on the lawsuit she has brought against him: "I don't want this case to be given more importance than it deserves."
Luc Rigouzzo, Managing Partner at Amethis Finance: "She quickly understood the deep-seated changes affecting the business models of private banks. She has a long-term vision, is brave and isn't afraid to take initiative. She takes responsibility for her decisions."