“Congratulations !!!,” Asoka Wöhrmann wrote in an email from 2018 to the key people behind the creation of the auto-financing start-up Auto1 Fintech. “Thank you for spending millions of tons of energy making this deal happen.”
The message from Wöhrmann, then Deutsche Bank’s most senior retail banker in Germany and now CEO of the country’s top asset manager DWS, has returned to haunt him as a scandal grows over his use of private messages for business purposes.
Two days before the 56-year-old announced record DWS results for 2021 and provided an optimistic outlook, the Financial Times reported that Wöhrmann had used his personal email extensively for work messages.
FT also revealed a payment of € 160,000 to Wöhrmann from a Deutsche Bank client who participated in the Auto1 Fintech negotiations, later explained by both as part of a failed attempt to buy a Porsche.
The case escalated rapidly. Deutsche Bank extended an internal investigation as the use of personal e-mail is strictly prohibited at the lender.
The ECB is investigating governance issues surrounding Wöhrmann, a person familiar with the matter told FT on Friday. A former DWS director has highlighted the alleged extensive use of WhatsApp by Wöhrmann and other DWS executives in a whistleblower complaint to Germany’s financial watchdog BaFin. The ECB and BaFin declined to comment.
All of this comes on top of investigations conducted by U.S. law enforcement agencies and BaFin of alleged laundering, which were highlighted last year by DWS ‘fired head of ESG, Desiree Fixler. An employment court in Frankfurt on Monday dismissed Fixler’s unreasonable dismissal case.
Wöhrmann, who declined to comment, seems to be taking things in stride. “Noise from the sidelines will not deter us from doing what we need to do to remain successful,” he told analysts on Thursday, praising “new records for net inflows, revenues and profits.”
Following the FT report, DWS told other media that in recent months, Wöhrmann had been the target of a “malicious campaign” in which “misleading and selective” information was leaked to “attack and rogue him”.
The company, which has € 928 billion. in assets under management, said Wöhrmann had also received racist and threatening letters, including a white powder in December that forced the evacuation of parts of DWS’s headquarters in Frankfurt.
“I do not want to be intimidated,” Wöhrmann told analysts. “And I will not be discouraged from my job.”
Born in Sri Lanka in 1965, Wöhrmann moved to Germany at the age of 11 and grew up in a German family who adopted him.
As a trained economist, he joined DWS as a portfolio manager in 1998 after completing his PhD. He became as much a specialist in Japan as it was from the fallout of a burst real estate bubble, joking that he was “assigned the tasks that no one else wanted to perform”. He eventually became global head of foreign exchange, then chief investment officer.
In 2015, he left briefly to take charge of Deutsche Bank’s German retail banking business, where he closed every fourth branch, including the one where his boss Christian Sewing had started as a trainee. “I hope you will forgive me for this,” he told his boss at the time.
When Wöhrmann returned to DWS in November 2018 to replace the unhappy predecessor Nicolas Moreau, staff in Frankfurt were enthusiastic and erupted in applause, even before Wöhrmann had said a word at his first town hall meeting as CEO.
“He does this job with a lot of enthusiasm and authenticity and is able to inspire our staff,” Said Zanjani, head of the DWS Workers’ Council, told the Financial Times, adding that DWS was “a proud company and he brought us back to where we belong ”.
From an investor perspective, Wöhrmann’s tenure has been successful. DWS shares have risen 47 percent since taking over the helm, compared to a 35 percent increase at majority owner Deutsche Bank and despite the US greenwashing study that wiped out € 1bn. in market value.
In an early coup, Wöhrmann persuaded Tim Albrecht, a star fund manager who had been appointed to a top role in the private bank Berenberg, to stay with DWS.
The new CEO embarked on a radical cost-saving plan, firing about 50 CEOs, declaring that “the stairs are being swept from the top”. Dare to lay off management-level staff “won him the respect of many privates,” Zanjani said.
Some senior executives who left DWS have a less benign attitude, describing Wöhrmann as vain, lightning-fast and Machiavellian, saying he surrounds himself with a small circle of yes-men.
“Loyalty is more important than quality,” said a former colleague.
Wöhrmann’s record is not tarnished. An attempt to merge with UBS ‘asset management branch failed in 2019. A point from Albrecht on Wirecard cost DWS DKK 600 million. EUR when the payment group came to a standstill.
For the time being, however, Deutsche Bank’s CEO Christian Sewing stands by being the head of a crucial division that ties up some equity and generates stable earnings.
“Asoka Wöhrmann has done an excellent job, for which I am very, very grateful,” he told reporters Thursday. “Therefore, I have no doubt.”