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Exclusive: Widow of Zurich CFO to confront insurer at AGM over suicide

The logo of Zurich Insurance Group is seen at the company's headquarters in Zurich September 2, 2013. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
The logo of Zurich Insurance Group is seen at the company's headquarters in Zurich September 2, 2013. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

By Katharina Bart

ZURICH (Reuters) - Seven months after the suicide of Zurich Insurance finance chief Pierre Wauthier, his widow is set to confront the company over its handling of the tragedy, reopening a scandal that unsettled investors.

In the first extensive interview since her husband's death last August, Fabienne Wauthier told Reuters she would attend Zurich's annual general meeting (AGM) on Wednesday - along with her daughter and her late husband's mother and brother - to voice concerns about how a probe into the suicide was conducted.

She says she is dissatisfied with the investigation, commissioned by Switzerland's financial regulator FINMA and conducted by law firm Homburger.

During the Homburger probe, Wauthier's widow has said she was never approached by the law firm, which has previously carried out work for Zurich and was asked by FINMA to look into whether the CFO had come under "undue pressure". It concluded he had not.

Josef Ackermann, the Zurich chairman who stepped down after being mentioned in one of two suicide notes left by the 53-year-old executive, had described Wauthier's death as a "very tragic event" but denied responsibility for it.

Sources who saw the note said it blamed Ackermann for creating an unbearable work environment.

Mrs. Wauthier, a 55-year-old French woman who has said little in public since the death, said she wanted the company to reconsider whether the probe was complete, to explain why Ackermann resigned if he did not accept blame and why details of tension at work were not made public after it pledged to look into the allegations made in the suicide note.

"We are not going there for money nor revenge," she added.

Zurich spokesman Angel Serna, when asked for comment on Mrs. Wauthier's version of events, said: "We are still saddened by what has happened, and we will never know the reasons for his irreversible decision."

Heinz Schaerer, a senior partner at Homburger who led the probe, declined to comment. FINMA also declined to comment on details of how the investigation was carried out.

Wauthier's appearance at the AGM comes at an uncomfortable time for Zurich Insurance, a conservative 142-year old company that has spent the past half year trying to restore calm and reassure investors in the wake of the suicide.

"We have asked Zurich to do the right thing," said Mrs. Wauthier, who spoke to Reuters for more than four hours at the family home in Walchwil, a 19th-century lakefront guesthouse that Pierre first spotted when out running.

Photos and mementos around the house paint the picture of a well-travelled, close-knit family adjusting to children leaving - a daughter studying at Cambridge University and a son in California, where the Wauthiers lived until 2007.

Emotional at times, she spoke about events leading up to the death and revealed details, including an alert to the human resources department before her husband's suicide, that have not previously been reported.

Reuters approached more than a dozen people who worked closely with Wauthier, including Ackermann, who all declined to comment. As a result, Reuters was unable to corroborate the details of his widow's account.

HR ALERTED OF STRESS

By June last year, Mrs. Wauthier said her husband had become disillusioned with the atmosphere at Zurich.

He began to question whether he wanted to stay in a post he had long seen as his "dream job" and decided to discreetly cast around for alternatives outside Zurich.

In July, he met with the human resources department, which Mrs. Wauthier and two sources familiar with the matter said had been alerted by his team that he was suffering from excessive stress.

He told HR staff he was feeling the strain but hoped to recover during two weeks of summer holidays he would soon take.

The Zurich spokesman said: "We did not have any indication that Pierre was contemplating such a step (suicide). If we had, we would have immediately taken action."

In August, company sources said Wauthier and Ackermann clashed over the presentation of financial goals with the insurer's second-quarter earnings.

To the outside world, Wauthier helped present the earnings figures in mid-August with the friendly professionalism he was known for.

But he had by then already decided he would leave the insurer, according to his widow.

His attempts to find another position outside Zurich never got off the ground, largely because Wauthier was putting in such long hours that he found little time to look elsewhere.

The CFO told his wife he would quit even without a new job.

But hours before he killed himself he told his wife, who was in Los Angeles helping their son get settled at Pepperdine University, that he wanted to wait for a "quarter with good results" before departing.

During that nearly hour-long conversation, she says he gave no sign he was distraught enough to contemplate suicide.

The following day, Wauthier was found dead at home. Ackermann resigned three days later, saying he believed Wauthier's family wanted him to do so.

(Additional reporting by Alice Baghdjian; Editing by Noah Barkin and Will Waterman)

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