Risk & Compliance

Mission Impossible?

Amid financial turmoil, who would want to handle a bank's communications?
Tim BurkeOctober 8, 2008

With bad news continuing to pour out of the banking sector, it takes a brave person like Tom Hill to want to take charge of a bank’s financial communications.

Hill recently stepped down after three years as UBS’s chief communication officer. But there’s a twist. As before, Hill’s replacement as CCO, Michael Willi, will report to the CEO and handle the Swiss bank’s global corporate and brand communications. But unlike Hill, Willi won’t be responsible for investor relations or preparing financial material. Those responsibilities stay with Hill in a new post dedicated to financial communications. Critically, Hill now reports to CFO John Cryan.

Hill’s new role is a telling example of how focused banks now need to be when communicating with the markets—as well as how closely their finance chiefs want to monitor staff in charge of handling the task. Experts agree that UBS’s decision to split the roles is smart. “Financial communications is a more specialised function than corporate communications, and aligning a dedicated executive with the CFO is a smart strategy,” says Kevin Windorf, vice president of New York-based Financial Communications Society, an industry body.

For his part, Hill describes himself as a finance, rather than a communications, professional. Before joining the communications team, he was head of investment research for the bank’s investment banking arm. And in separating financial communications from other parts of communications, he hopes to give the function a more strategic focus. Hill also now heads UBS’s group strategy unit, which advises the board on growth opportunities. This marks the first time that the unit has been aligned with the financial communications function, and Hill believes that under his watch, the two parts of the business will become close partners. “The danger of an internal analysis unit without having market involvement is that it becomes a little ‘ivory tower-ish,’” he says. “The danger of financial communications without some strategic input is that it becomes overwhelmed by short-term market input and takes a less strategic view.”

Hill couldn’t be taking up his new post at more tumultuous time. After UBS’s massive write-downs in early 2008 drew stinging criticism for the perceived abandonment of its conservative Swiss roots, financial news coming out of the bank in the weeks preceding Hill’s new appointment in August included yet another quarterly loss, this time SFr358m (€225m) for the second. Last week, the bank told shareholders to expect a “small profit” in its third quarter results which, if true, would be the first positive result in a year.

Hill laughs when it’s suggested that few communications experts would relish his role, but he seems at ease. After all, he says, he dealt with the bank’s communications throughout the credit crunch, so “it can’t get any more challenging.”