Riderless horses clattered across a frozen lake in the Alpine resort town of St Moritz, kicking snow into the faces of men on skis dragged behind them.
In February last year, weeks before public events across Switzerland were cancelled because of coronavirus, Credit Suisse flew its most treasured clients to White Turf — a more than century-old equestrian event, whose uniquely dangerous “skijoring” race the Swiss bank had sponsored for decades.
While the seven fearless skijorers risked their lives in the Grand Prix Credit Suisse, it was one of the watching guests that posed the biggest threat to the bank: British steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta.
Today, Gupta’s sprawling conglomerate GFG Alliance is teetering after the collapse of its biggest lender Greensill Capital. The metals group is also under investigation from the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. It denies any wrongdoing.
Credit Suisse was known to have indirect exposure to Gupta via Greensill, which packaged loans into notes acquired by the Swiss bank’s funds. When Greensill collapsed in March, Credit Suisse was confronted by the fact that a big slice of the debt may be bad, including loans to GFG.
What was not widely known until now, however, is that Credit Suisse also has a significant direct relationship with Gupta.
A string of former executives at the Swiss lender have revealed to the Financial Times how its private bankers and global leadership courted the metals magnate, offering him VIP treatment that extended far beyond the trip to St Moritz.
Forging a deep relationship with the Indian-born industrialist, Credit Suisse ignored warnings from concerned corporate clients and its own bankers.
The revelation that Credit Suisse handed Gupta everything from a mortgage on a trophy mansion to a private audience with its then chief executive, will further anger its clients who are facing potentially billions of dollars of losses.
Some of those clients are expected to sue Credit Suisse, alleging failures in the way the funds were managed. And the Greensill troubles come as the bank is reeling from another risk management scandal over its work with Archegos, the collapsed family office.
“The decision to finance entrepreneurs like [Gupta] at any cost was the wrong decision,” said one former senior executive in the bank’s Australia business who cited unease over loans to Gupta as a reason for his resignation. The banker added: “It was a lot of capital going to a highly risky situation.”
Credit Suisse and GFG declined to comment.
Having spent years wooing Sanjeev Gupta, Credit Suisse filed for divorce at the end of March, petitioning courts in the UK and Australia to place several of his core businesses into insolvency.
With $1.2bn to recover on behalf of furious clients, the Swiss bank has other tools at its disposal. Some of Gupta’s debt facilities from Greensill benefited from personal guarantees, according to people familiar with the terms, which could allow creditors to chase down the so-called “man of steel” himself.
To this end, Credit Suisse recently hired private investigators at Kroll to trace Gupta’s assets around the world, according to three people familiar with the matter.
While Gupta went on a half-decade corporate buying spree that built a metals conglomerate with 35,000 employees, he also amassed a personal collection of trophy assets. Splashy purchases ranged from a private plane and helicopter with matching vanity tail signs, to a grand £42m London townhouse — owned in his wife’s name.
Credit Suisse will not need Kroll’s services for intelligence on another of Gupta’s luxury homes: a 19th-century sandstone mansion overlooking Sydney harbour.
“Credit Suisse provided the mortgage. They were proud of it,” said the former executive. “Going after super-prime mortgages in Australia was a key strategy.”
Helping Gupta buy the A$35m (US$27m) home, which is owned through a trust overseen by an Australian stockbroker friend, was just one part of the service Credit Suisse offered as his private wealth manager.
The Swiss bank also managed the fortune of Lex Greensill, the 44-year-old Australian founder of Greensill Capital, who was a paper billionaire before his eponymous finance firm collapsed.
Managing the wealth of controversial businesspeople was all part of the plan for Credit Suisse. Helman Sitohang, the bank’s long-time Asia-Pacific boss, built a franchise catering to the region’s wealthiest businessman, embracing some reputational risks.
“We’re positioning ourselves as the bank for the entrepreneurs,” Sitohang said in February, days before Greensill Capital imploded. “In Asia that positioning has resonated very well for us.”
Gupta and Greensill even shared the same private banker at Credit Suisse: Shane Galligan, one of Sitohang’s biggest rainmakers, who had made it his mission to manage money for Australia’s richest tycoons.
“If you look at the strategy in Asia in terms of supporting ultra-high net worth clients, no one is bigger in the private bank than him,” said a second former Credit Suisse banker. “He covers the billionaires. That was his thing.”
Galligan ensured that Gupta received the full five-star Swiss banking experience. As well as inviting the steel magnate to the Alpine horseracing event, in 2019 he brokered a coveted meeting with the bank’s then chief executive Tidjane Thiam.
Galligan and Sitohang were instrumental in waving away concerns about the bank’s increasing entanglements with Gupta and Greensill, according to former Credit Suisse bankers. A person close to the bank said Sitohang was not close to Gupta or Greensill.
Another former executive recalled an internal call in 2020 between Galligan, Lara Warner — chief risk and compliance officer until she left following the Greensill and Archegos fiascos — and a handful of other bankers to discuss the growing hazards surrounding its business with Greensill.
“There was no sensitivity or appreciation of the risk dimension,” he said. “The tone was purely, ‘We want to bank this entrepreneurial client.’”
Credit Suisse said Sitohang and Galligan declined to comment.
Flight to Zurich
In February 2020, the same month that Credit Suisse welcomed Gupta to St Moritz, British banking regulators contacted the SFO with concerns about his family’s opaque metals-to-finance conglomerate.
The Swiss bank then received a stark warning. In July 2020, commodities trader Trafigura warned Credit Suisse that the bank’s supply-chain finance funds appeared to contain a suspicious invoice from Gupta’s business empire. The warning came as the bank was in the middle of an internal review of the funds, sparked by FT reporting on their unusual relationship with Greensill’s shareholder SoftBank.
And yet, not only did the Greensill-linked funds carry on lending to Gupta, Credit Suisse considered offering up its own balance sheet to the steel magnate too.
In October 2020, Gupta revealed a plan to seize control of one of Germany’s oldest — and most symbolic — industrial concerns: Thyssenkrupp’s more than 200-year old steelmaking unit.
When the steel magnate unveiled the audacious bid, he did not yet have committed debt financing, but he did have letters of support from two familiar financial institutions in his pocket: Greensill and Credit Suisse.
Backing the Thyssenkrupp bid was no one-off. Another former senior executive said that Credit Suisse’s investment banking division was “all over” GFG, lured by the potential fees on a seemingly never-ending string of deals, having also won a mandate on the long-touted listing of his InfraBuild business in Australia.
The fees never came, however. Both deals collapsed earlier this year as Greensill started to unravel and threatened to take GFG down with it.
Greensill’s fate was sealed over the last weekend in February, when Credit Suisse took the decision to freeze its $10bn range of supply-chain finance funds, having discovered that a key insurance contract underpinning the invoice securitisation machine had expired.
The Friday before that fateful decision, Gupta flew to Zurich with his loyal lieutenant Jay Hambro, scion of a British banking dynasty. Twelve months after the steel baron had enjoyed Credit Suisse’s hospitality at White Turf, he entered the Swiss lender’s palatial headquarters on Paradeplatz to a very different reception.
Gupta and Hambro lobbied the bank not to pull the plug on the funds, according to people familiar with the discussions.
This time, however, Credit Suisse was not willing to accommodate its once highly-valued client.
Additional reporting by Owen Walker and Stephen Morris