If you’re a banker sitting somewhat idle at UBS Group AG, you may be feeling vulnerable today. The Swiss giant has picked Ralph Hamers — an outsider credited with making ING Groep NV one of Europe’s most digitally savvy and cost-efficient banks — as its new chief executive officer. That sets a clear strategic direction for UBS.

The lender is turning to an experienced hand in trimming costs and using machines instead of humans. Still, beyond the obvious signals about how UBS intends to defend its bottom line in the future, it’s hard to portray the recruitment of the 53-year-old Dutchman, a lifer in banking, as a truly radical choice at a time when the robots are taking over finance. As Morgan Stanley’s $13 billion acquisition of E*Trade Financial Corp. shows, managing wealth in the future will involve a considerable degree of technology nous and automation. Hamers did well by introducing popular banking apps for ING’s retail customers, but servicing the rich is a different game.

Plus, with the boardrooms of some of Europe’s biggest banks mired in controversy, the arrival of the former ING CEO will raise a few eyebrows: The Dutch lender had to pay $900 million to settle an investigation into alleged money-laundering.

After successfully turning around UBS by shrinking its trading business and expanding in private banking, outgoing CEO Sergio Ermotti has taken his foot off the pedal somewhat recently. The $2.6 trillion wealth manager hasn’t adapted as swiftly as competitors to negative interest rates and the firm’s bloated costs have hit its profitability.

So hiring someone from outside Swiss financial circles will at least bring some kind of break. A focus on operational costs has helped another Swiss bank, Credit Suisse Group AG, and Italy’s UniCredit SpA.

While it’s not entirely obvious that Hamers can replicate at UBS what he did in Dutch consumer banking, his laser focus on expenses will be positive. The appointment also ends uncertainty about the leadership of the Swiss bank, where half the executive management team has changed in the past two years.

Hamers is certainly experienced, having spent almost three decades at ING, including six as CEO, but he’s never cut his teeth running an investment bank. That unit soaks up 30% of UBS’s risk-weighted assets and is generating returns that even Ermotti deems unacceptable. Nor has the new man run a wealth management business, which makes up about 60% of UBS’s profit. Barclays analysts noted that none of the investors they’d spoken to had named Hamers as a potential Ermotti successor.

Then there’s ING’s patchy record of oversight and controls. In 2018, the Dutch lender agreed to pay that $900 million to settle an investigation into corrupt practices by former clients. The bank was also reprimanded by its regulators over the money-laundering scandal. Its chief finance officer had to leave.

In fairness, it’s hard to find a senior banker with a question-free past right now: Nordic banks have been embroiled in money-laundering scandals too; Credit Suisse ousted CEO Tidjane Thiam amid a spying scandal; and Barclays Plc’s CEO is being probed by British regulators over his ties to the deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Hamers arrives with many of the right attributes for the job, and UBS investors pushed up the share price on Thursday. UBS Chairman Axel Weber says his new CEO will have learnt from the money-laundering debacle. But this is a very big beast to get right. 

To contact the author of this story: Elisa Martinuzzi at emartinuzzi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Elisa Martinuzzi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance. She is a former managing editor for European finance at Bloomberg News.

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