Harvard’s Lunch Ladies Called Citibank’s New CEO Years Ago


Vikram Pandit shocked Wall Street (Exhibit A: the Wall Street Journal homepage) when he abruptly resigned as CEO of Citibank Tuesday after clashing with the board and prompted his right hand, COO John Havens, to exit with him. Pandit’s corner office won’t remain empty for long.

Sliding right in following his ouster was Mike Corbat, who had been running Citi’s international operations of Europe, Middle East and Africa for less than a year and was clearly being groomed for the role. The WSJ calls Corbat, a Citi veteran and its former head of investment banking, the company’s “Mr. Fix-It,” writing that Pandit often used Corbat as a repairman of sorts, and his history at the bank backs up that notion.[more]

Before he took on the EMEA role, Corbat ran Citi Holdings, where Citigroup “stuck all its toxic and unwanted parts … as it tried to recover from the financial crisis that crippled it,” the Journal reports. Corbat managed to do a good job divesting properties and winding that down. In the past, he’s also been the head of global wealth management, run the global corporate bank and global commercial bank, and was also once in charge of running global emerging markets debt.

Whether Corbat is the right exec for the crucial job of running and turning around Citi remains to be seen. But one indicator of what kind of leader Corbat may be can be found way back in 1982 when he was a senior at Harvard and a reporter (Andy Doctoroff, brother of Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff, who went on to become a Detroit-based journalist and then lawyer) from The Crimson (hat-tip to Jennifer 8. Lee for sharing on Twitter) spent a little time with him.

In Doctoroff’s profile, which catches Corbat, an all-Ivy offensive guard on the football team who the lunch ladies dote on, in the weeks before his final game at Harvard. Even though Corbat is so good at what he does on the field that he caught the eye of a few NFL scouts, he is all about the team, consistently mentioning his teammates and noting that he’d rather have a team win than a personal gain. He’s even referred to as “a 6-ft, 3-m, 230 pound dear” that Harvard’s female student population found dreamy.

And even though he is in his senior year at one of America’s most academically challenging universities and a star member of the football team, Corbat still found the time to run his own business, a painting and landscaping firm entitled MCI Enterprises. “I just saw the need for it when looking around,” Corbat told the Crimson. “Students always need jobs, so there’s a broad labor base. There wasn’t anything to lose. It was just a matter of me getting out there and going. I’m competing against people who have high overhead. I don’t have much of an overhead. We beat out some big painting contractors and some big landscaping people.”

He started the business in February of his junior year and pulled in a profit that March. Not too shabby. Now Citibank would like as much of that as it can get, thank you very much. One good sign: Wall Street’s former lunch lady (if serving confidence to investors counts as sustenance), former FDIC chair Sheila Bair, praised Corbat’s operational skills and applauded his promotion to the Wall Street Journal and to Fortune, telling the latter:

I had meetings with him when they had problems during the financial crisis. He came prepared and had ready answers to our questions. Based on my interaction with him, my view is favorable, and the board reached the same conclusion.