Citigroup CFO Mark Mason on how ‘careers are defined in times of crisis’

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When I met with Citigroup CFO Mark Mason at the company’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, I assumed we would be talking about the regional banking crisis and SVB. But I also ended up learning about how his career was shaped by an earlier crisis.

Regarding SVB and other bank failures, “What we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks in many instances are incidents of either poor management or certainly poor balance sheet management,” Mason told me. A big issue was “the asset-liability mix, or too narrow of a focus on a particular customer or client segment, like venture and technology,” he noted. “When you look at the Globally Systemically Important Banks, the G-SIBs, we certainly have all types of requirements that ensure safety and soundness.”

Citi has a CET1 ratio of 13.4% and a liquidity coverage ratio of 120%, Mason said on April 14 during a media call discussing Citi’s Q1 2023 earnings. For the first quarter, Citi reported $4.6 billion in net income compared to $4.3 billion in the same period last year, beating expectations. Revenues increased 12% from the prior-year period and 6% excluding the divestiture-related impacts.

Mason, who has been CFO of Citi since 2019, told me that in part due to changes regulators made after the 2008 financial crisis, banks are better off. “The sector, by and large, is safer and sounder than it was back then,” he said during our conversation in a conference room on the 39th floor overlooking the Hudson River. But it was during that pivotal year of 2008 that Mason had a career-defining experience while he was the CFO and head of strategy and M&A for Citi’s global wealth management division. 

“In the last weeks of 2008, the Citi CFO at the time, Gary Crittenden, called me, and he said, ‘Mark, what are you getting ready to do?’ Mason recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going on vacation like everyone else.’ He said, ‘I need you to stick around. We’re considering a joint venture between Smith Barney and Citi’s Morgan Stanley. I need you to kind of run point on our side representing the business.’”

Mason put together a small team, including the corporate M&A team that now-CEO Jane Fraser was leading at the time, and they worked together through the holidays. “We worked on providing all the business information for that joint venture,” he said. In January 2009, Citi announced a definitive agreement for the joint venture that created a wealth management business. 

“But I had worked myself out of a job,” Mason said. “All that would be left was a private bank, and it would be a lot smaller.” He considered interviewing with Morgan Stanley. “I got a call from Gary Crittenden who said, ‘I hear you’re trying to interview to go with the joint venture; I don’t want you to go,” Mason recalled. “He said, ‘We’re going to take all of the businesses and assets that we’re thinking of exiting and put them together under Citi Holdings. And I’d like for you to stay and be the CFO of Citi Holdings.’” 

Mason continued, “I said, ‘Gary, you want me to run the bad bank?’ He said, ‘Mark, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t refer to it as the bad bank. Then he said something that stuck with me, ‘Mark, careers are defined in times of crisis.’ And in many ways, he was right.”

Mason’s first role at Citi Holdings was CFO. Shortly after, former Citigroup CEO Mike Corbat appointed him COO of Citi Holdings, and he eventually became CEO of the division. Since beginning his career at Citi in 2001, Mason also served as CEO of Citi Private Bank. 

I asked him what he’s learned from being a CFO and CEO. Breaking down silos and looking at matters with a one-firm perspective has been “true whether I’m in a CFO role or a CEO role,” he said. When Mason has meetings with his management team, he often tells them to think about their decisions in the context of their own role and if they were in his shoes, and in Fraser’s position.

He also shared with me advice from one of his mentors, the late Vernon Jordan, a business executive, attorney, and civil rights leader. “The first time I met Mr. Jordan, I was describing a role that I was in and I was asking his perspective on how to leverage it,” Mason recalls. “He said, ‘You’ve gotta play the hand you’re dealt. You seem a little bit shy about leaning into the power of this position that you’re in. You’ve got a good hand, and you’ve gotta play that hand.’” Mason added, “That stuck with me over the years.”


Sheryl Estrada

sheryl.estrada@fortune.com

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Big deal

A report by S&P Global Market Intelligence found that after SVB’s collapse, institutional investors initially sold off about $17.82 billion of stocks in the first two weeks of March. The following week, institutions became net buyers and increased positions by more than $1.93 billion. The group sold a net of $20.17 billion in equities for the month, according to the report. Institutions reduced exposure to financials by 1.1% in March, compared to 0.4% in February. “This would suggest the group’s concerns about contagion were alleviated in the latter part of the month as the market recovered, though they still generally avoided the financials space,” Christopher Blake, executive director of S&P Global Issuer Solutions, said in a statement. 

Courtesy of S&P Global Market Intelligence

Going deeper

EY’s 2023 Empathy in Business Survey highlights that empathy in the workplace “drives psychological safety and fosters an experiential culture that allows for experimental failure to generate learning and new ideas.” The research found that 52% of employees surveyed perceive corporate attempts at empathy to be inauthentic; that’s an increase from 46% in last year’s report. And employees increasingly report a lack of follow-through when it comes to company promises, 47% compared to 42% in 2021. EY research indicates offering flexibility is essential.

Leaderboard

Ricky Hopson was named interim CFO at Catalent, Inc. (NYSE: CTLT), provider of delivery technologies for pharma and biotech, effective April 14. Thomas Castellano, SVP and CFO, departed the company on April 13. The company also said in the announcement that it expects productivity issues and higher-than-expected costs for the quarter ending March 31. Hopson has been Catalent’s president and division head for clinical development and supply since July 2022. Before that, he served the company for more than 20 years in a variety of finance roles, including VP and chief accounting officer. The company has initiated a search for a permanent CFO.

C. Evan Ballantyne was named CFO at Gain Therapeutics, Inc. (Nasdaq: GANX), a biotechnology company, effective immediately. Ballantyne succeeds Salvatore Calabrese, who is expected to remain employed by the company during a transition period. Ballantyne has more than 20 years of experience. Most recently, he was CFO of OncXerna Therapeutics, Inc. Before OncXerna, Ballantyne served as CFO of Orchestra Biomed, Inc. He also served as CFO of Cerecin, Inc.; EVP and CFO of Clinical Data, Inc.; and as CFO of Agenus, Inc. (Nasdaq: AGEN), and Synthetic Biologics, Inc.

Overheard

“I don’t think of us as fast food, I’m always driving home the point that we are actually a company that does ‘culinary’ at scale.”

—Chipotle Mexican Grill CEO Brian Niccol told Fortune in an interview. Niccol, the author of the burrito chain’s turnaround since he became CEO in 2018, has convinced customers to stay loyal and pay more. A new Fortune piece explores how he’s now facing hurdles that could be even higher.

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