Tragedy in Switzerland: What drove two top executives to suicide?

September 23, 2013, 1:00 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Zurich in the late summer is a place of bucolic serenity, where birds swoop across the lake, before beginning their migration South over the Alps. But on August 26, the picturesque calm in Switzerland’s financial center was blown apart. Pierre Wauthier, the 53-year-old chief financial officer of one of the world’s biggest underwriters, Zurich Insurance Group (ZURVY), was found hanging in the Wauthier family home, in the small upscale Zurich exurb of Walchwil. With clean-cut looks and a marathon-runner’s build, the 53-year-old executive left two grown children and a wife, Fabienne, whose memory of his party-dance skills suggested a zest for life, rather than anguish.

But Wauthier left something else, too, which has sent shock waves through the business world and left Zurich Insurance (No. 123 on the Global 500) reeling: Two suicide notes, one to his family, the other to the company. At first glance, the second looked like a business communiqué, typewritten under the heading, “To Whom It May Concern.” Instead, it was a damning indictment of a towering figure in European business: Zurich’s chairman and former Deutsche Bank CEO, Josef Ackermann. Wauthier said he’d been driven to desperation by the chairman’s overbearing style — a relationship so toxic, that suicide seemed a logical escape. Written in English, the language the two men typically spoke together, it was “a violent reproach,” says Zurich’s biweekly financial magazine Bilanz, citing several people who have read it. “It castigated Ackermann as aggressive and referred to him as the worst chairman he had ever experienced.” Within days of the suicide, Ackermann, 65, was gone from Zurich, telling the board that although Wauthier’s accusations were baseless, they rendered his position untenable.

In the weeks since that tragic summer’s end, many in the financial world have been left to ponder profound issues. First, how did a major corporation fail to notice that its longtime, much-liked executive was hurtling toward suicidal despair? Wauthier was deeply enmeshed in Zurich’s top ranks, having spent 17 years at the company — nearly 16 years longer than Ackermann. The company is conducting an internal probe into the affair and moved quickly to name Ackermann’s deputy Tom De Swaan as its new chairman. In a September 3 conference call, CEO Martin Senn assured analysts Zurich was in good shape.

But leaving aside Wauthier’s torment, deeper questions remain: Has life at the top of these global behemoths become an unbearable pressure cooker, given to explosive conflicts, especially during tough economic times? And are profit motives trampling on human ones among executives? Clearly, many unhappy executives have opted simply to resign, and suicide remains a very rare event. Yet in Switzerland, those questions are especially poignant, since Wauthier killed himself just weeks after Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter took his life at his home near the capital Bern, after enduring a personality conflict at the top that seems chillingly similar. Some now wonder whether things have gone badly awry with executive life. “The pressure and speed are increasing dramatically,” says Bjorn Johansson, founder of a Zurich-based executive recuitment firm named for him, and a long-time acquaintance of both Wauthier and Ackermann.

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Johansson told Fortune he is sure the close timing of Switzerland’s summer suicides was pure coincidence and that executive suicides are more common worldwide than is publicly known. And while the pressures at the top have indeed soared, he points out that executive pay has, too; in other words, these tough jobs are done by powerful, rich people. (Wauthier’s salary was believed to be $3.2 million.) Yet even so, the 21st-century, always-on corporate culture has brought intense challenges that some might find unmanageable. “With the Internet, the analysts, the journalists — you always have to perform,” Johansson says.

To the outside world, Zurich’s tragedy has seemed baffling, especially since the company, founded in 1872, seemed to embody Switzerland’s low-key, no-drama style. Yet astute observers have since claimed there they had spotted signs of trouble since shortly after March, 2012, when Ackermann was brought in to shake up the company.

Raised in rural Switzerland, Ackermann was a rock star in German finance, having transformed Deutsche Bank (DB) from a parochial company into a global powerhouse within one decade, though failing to secure the position of chairman there. His Frankfurt office featured photos of him with King Juan Carlos of Spain, Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, and Angela Merkel (who rushed to Ackermann for help in shoring up German banks in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ collapse in September, 2008).

For Zurich’s board members, Ackermann’s fame was a powerful draw, according to one member, unnamed, who spoke to Bilanz for its September 20 cover story on the power struggle at the top, entitled “Like Fire and Water.” The board member said Ackermann’s appointment as chairman proved “a mistake,” while others witnessed a culture clash from the start. The chairman arrived with a swagger. Rather than installing himself in his predecessor’s cramped interior office, he moved into spacious waterfront digs. The tradition of informal, spontaneous meetings gave way to formal scheduled appointments. Though colleagues felt Ackermann was still learning the insurance industry, the chairman pushed for sweeping changes.

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Months of chafing disagreements crystallized in a single hour on August 14, when Wauthier met Ackermann in his office to finalize the next day’s presentation of Zurich’s half-year earnings, according to staff who spoke to Reuters earlier this month, and Bilanz more recently. Against Wauthier’s advice, Ackermann wrote in a statement, declaring that Zurich looked set to miss some three-year targets. Wauthier, far more familiar with the peculiarities of insurance accounting, argued that the company was in fact on track to meet its goals. But Ackermann won out. And in his suicide note less than two weeks later, Wauthier cited the August 14 meeting, according to insiders who spoke to Bilanz. At its August 15 presentation, Zurich reported a 17% drop in half-year net profits, and its share price dropped 4%.

To some of Ackermann’s friends and colleagues, Wauthier’s indicting words were as confounding as his death. Ackermann has described himself in a documentary as “very demanding,” but his defenders reject any suggestion of him mistreating colleagues. “He’s a tough and demanding executive, but always fair and kind-mannered as well,” Stefan Baron, Ackermann’s long-time spokesman at Deutsche Bank, told Fortune. In Baron’s biography of his former boss, which appeared in mid-September, he describes Ackermann as impatient and exacting, and “not a cakewalk to work for.” “Nobody should expect a ‘thank you’ after working through the night,” he writes. Yet Baron told Fortune Ackermann had ridden out outsized crises — the Lehman collapse, the near-death of some German banks, and the Eurozone crisis — with élan, and does not believe he drove Wauthier to desperation. Looking relaxed and smiling, Ackermann told reporters at Baron’s book launch in Berlin that he “vehemently rejects” responsibility for Wauthier’s death. “He’s always very calm and collected, even in the middle of great turmoil,” Baron told Fortune. “It must be in his genes, from his upbringing in the Swiss countryside.”

But the Swiss countryside has not been a picture of calm lately. On July 23, five weeks before Wauthier’s death, Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter, 49, hanged himself in his home in rural Fribourg, near the capital Bern. (Six weeks earlier, Schloter’s friend Daniel Eicher, CEO of ABC Verlag, a greeting-card company, committed suicide at home in Bern, though little has been reported about his death.) Like Wauthier, Schloter left a suicide note, reportedly short and vague.

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The rash of Switzerland’s summer suicides could well be coincidence. Yet the echoes between Wauthier and Schloter are hard to miss. Roughly contemporaries, both were in high-flying executive positions at large companies facing tough competitive pressures; Swisscom, the country’s biggest telecom company mostly owned by the government, reported a 10% drop in earnings for the first half of 2013, citing the rising cost of adding subscribers. Both men were good-looking, supremely fit sports nuts, whose outdoor passions were central in their lives. Schloter was an ardent runner, snowboarder, and skier, logged about 2,200 miles a year on his racing bike, and was looking to launch a bike-sharing company in Bern. “Handsome and athletic, he embodied virility,” Bilanz’s telecom correspondent Marc Kowalsky wrote after the death of Schloter, whom he’d known well for 12 years. “Carsten Schloter’s career seemed unstoppable.”

But one factor stopped Schloter’s rise in its tracks, and in Kowalsky’s opinion, was key to his final collapse: An intense conflict at the top of the company. Much like Wauthier, Schloter’s life at Swisscom took a bad turn with the arrival of a powerful president, Hansueli Loosli, in mid-2011. Loosli was determined to shake up the company, having earned accolades for transforming Switzerland’s supermarket chain Coop into a major corporation. He demanded higher profits and leaner expenses, using strategies borrowed from Coop. Yet he was new to the industry, which was undergoing major changes, and Schloter, who was charged with making that happen, had other ideas. Who exactly ran the company was sometimes unclear — a problem, some believe, in Switzerland, where the chairman/president and CEO responsibilities overlap closely. Schloter’s years of relative autonomy and freedom under Loosli’s precedessor were quickly halted, as the new man imposed his authority. “Schloter and Loosli were both micromanagers,” Kowalsky told Fortune. “If you put two people like that together and one is the superior of the other, it does not work well.”

The strains in Schloter’s life were clear. He told a TV correspondent last year that his failed marriage was his “greatest defeat” and had left him feeling constant guilt. He had separated from his wife a few years ago, after falling in love with a Swisscom colleague; he saw his three children only every two weeks. But his new partner traveled much of the time, and friends have told journalists that the couple was considering breaking up by the time Schloter killed himself. Added to that was the ongoing struggle with Loosli. Colleagues told Kowalsky that at work, the ebullient Schloter was withdrawn and quiet, his presentations halting. Insomnia plagued him. Schloter, who’d run Swisscom since 2006, was openly hunting for a new job, consulting recruiters and plotting his bike-sharing company. He had long eschewed working in an office, preferring to be always available on his smartphone. But in May, Schloter told a Swiss Sunday newspaper he now felt “strangled” by the 24/7 work demands. “When you permanently check your smartphone to see if there are any new emails, it leads you to not find any rest whatsoever,” he was quoted saying. “I find it increasingly difficult to calm down.” That now sounds like a cry for help.

By early July, Schloter was telling his close friends he had to get out of Swisscom without delay and headed to a 5,000-foot high peak in the Alps. He checked into the 300-year-old Hotel Guarda Val Lenzerheide, a favorite for climbers, and engaged in a week of hard mountain biking. He then spent a week with his children at his holiday home at Zermatt, before handing them back to his ex-wife. When he returned home, the house was empty; his girlfriend was gone. His housemaid found him hanging inside early next morning. “Anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, feelings of guilt — the trigger for his final decision, Schloter took to his grave,” Kowalsky wrote in Bilanz.

While we cannot know for sure what drove Schloter to suicide, looking back, Kowalsky says he believes the combination of his family problems and the intense power struggle with Loosli left Schloter feeling he had nowhere to escape. “Nobody knows what made him do the final act,” he told Fortune. “But the conflict with the president seems the most important.”

Swisscom and Zurich Insurance are each moving on. With a new quarter, both are looking to the future. Swisscom’s acting CEO Urs Schaeppi delivered an upbeat announcement on September 12, saying the company was aiming at big expansion of “superfast” broadband services. Stefan Baron, Josef Ackermann’s biographer, says his former boss is in a “contemplative” state, considering his future. And on September 19, Zurich unveiled a new ad campaign under the slogan, “For Those Who Truly Love,” with a narrator saying, “When you truly love something, you protect it in the best way.” Sadly, it is too late to protect two Swiss executives, Pierre Wauthier and Carsten Schloter. It’s now left to their colleagues to ponder what happened and how to avert another untimely death.