Martin Zielke

No Lover of Limelight

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Commerzbank’s CEO is set to join the board of the German banking association in turbulent times, underscoring the growing importance of the domestic banking market over international investment banking.

  • Facts


    • The appointment could be discussed by the association’s board as early as this week, according to Handelsblatt information.
    • Mr. Zielke was named Commerzbank’s CEO earlier this year, replacing Martin Blessing.
    • Mr. Zielke, 53, has presented a restructuring plan to cut 9,600 jobs by 2020.
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Commerzbank CEO Zielke addresses a newsconference in Frankfurt
Commerzbank CEO Martin Zielke addresses a news conference in Frankfurt. Source: Reuters

Martin – who? When Martin Zielke was chosen as Commerzbank’s new chief executive earlier this year, even some industry experts had little idea of who he was. Mr. Zielke deliberately stayed in the background, even after taking office. At least until his radical restructuring plans for the country’s second largest bank became public at the end of September: By the end of 2020, the company plans to cut about 9,600 jobs, most of them in Germany.

Now the 53-year-old wants to join the board of the Association of German Banks (BdB), succeeding the head of Commerzbank’s business with small and medium-sized companies, Markus Beumer, who became the arguably most prominent victim of Mr. Zielke’s reconstruction plans. It was a further sign that the new chief executive of Commerzbank is not to be underestimated.

The appointment hasn’t been confirmed yet, as the banking association’s members still have to vote on it. The topic could be discussed as early as next week, according to information obtained by Handelsblatt. Both the BdB and Commerzbank declined to comment.

The association is made up of private-sector banks and represents heavyweights such as Deutsche Bank or HypoVereinsbank, but also many small private banks. Mr. Zielke’s entry into the BdB board can also be taken as a statement: His predecessor at Commerzbank, Martin Blessing, left the panel in 2012 to concentrate on working with the Institute of International Finance (IIF) – a move that was seen as an insult at the time.

Now Mr. Zielke has declared domestic lobbying a top priority – and will sit on the board of the banking association in the company of managers like John Cryan of Deutsche Bank or Hermann Merkens of Aareal Bank.

Little is known about the Commerzbank head's private life.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Zielke is not a man who enjoys the limelight. During his rare appearances, he seems strangely withdrawn. He was born in Hofgeismar in central Germany, completed an apprenticeship with Deutsche Bank and studied at the University of Göttingen. Under Mr. Blessing, he was promoted to head the consumer-banking unit and, together with his team, transformed the ailing business. He consistently defended the need for a strong branch network in the face of resistance from the board – and used aggressive marketing to win over the competition’s customers. That went down well: In the search for Mr. Blessing’s successor, Mr. Zielke prevailed – even against Markus Beumer, head of the Mittelstandsbank unit.

Mr. Beumer will leave the bank by October 31. There is no room for Mr. Zielke’s rival in Commerzbank 4.0, as Mr. Zielke boldly christened his project. Mr. Zielke is focussing the bank on two divisions for private and corporate customers, and Mittelstandsbank’s customers will be split among both segments. “We urgently need to do something to make the bank much more profitable and more competitive again,”  Mr. Zielke said during the presentation of his strategy.

Little is known about Mr. Zielke’s private life, other than that the father of two is believed to be a model train aficionado and a fan of the city of Hamburg. Everyone agrees Commerzbank has to make changes, but the extent of the cuts have surprised many employees. 80 percent of the processes are to be digitized in the new Commerzbank. But where computers do the work, many employees are no longer needed. Mr. Zielke needs to communicate to the employees that the painful reconstruction is worth it. This is not easy because the outlook is gloomy: Even if the bank reaches its self-proclaimed targets, in the end it will at best earn its cost of capital.

Expectations rest in particular on Mr. Zielke’s former favorite discipline, retail banking. Board member Michael Mandel is tasked with increasing  yields by at least €1.1 billion. Many analysts and investors wonder if this can be accomplished. But even that can be seen as a success for the bank with the yellow logo. At Commerzbank, which had to be bailed out by taxpayers during the financial crisis, a path forward is being discussed. Rival Deutsche Bank doesn’t even seem to have any clarity as to where it is headed.


Michael Brächer is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Frankfurt, covering banks and the financial sector. To contact the author:

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