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11.24.08

The 7 Who Could Have Saved Citi

When Jamie Dimon was ousted from Citi, he took the bank’s rising stars with him. Now, Dimon and his loyal crew are Wall Street’s most triumphant survivors.

The list of those at fault in Citigroup’s near-demise is being written as we speak. But there’s another list: those who might have been able to save the joint if they’d still been around.

Much attention has been paid in the past several days to Citigroup’s lurch towards risk in the tail end of the housing and liquidity boom. That decision ultimately brought the institution to its knees, leaving Citi literally begging Uncle Sam to step in and save it. The begging worked, and the house that Sandy Weill built will live to see at least a few more days. But the finger pointing has begun. The bulk of it has been toward those deemed complicit in the banking behemoth’s reckless decisions made in search of an extra buck:

Sandy Weill: Did his empire building result in a company that was literally unmanageable?

Chuck Prince: Did Weill’s handpicked successor have any business running such a complex institution after spending the bulk of his career as general counsel?

Bob Rubin: On top of making some $20 million-plus a year for a job with no actual responsibilities, did the revered former Secretary of the Treasury goad naïve Citigroup executives into taking risks they should have eschewed?

Vikram Pandit: Reportedly hand-picked by Rubin to take the reins from Prince, did the former Morgan Stanley number two miss the chance to make some tough decisions over the past year?

Tom Maheras: Did Citi’s trading chief have any idea how devastating his reassurances to Prince and Pandit about the company’s risk exposures would prove to be?

That list will grow. But, in what you could call a Tale of Two Cities, there’s another list that hasn’t been circulating as much: the list of those people who weren’t there to help. Some were forced out by Weill or Prince. Others chose to leave to hitch their careers to Jamie Dimon, Weill’s erstwhile heir-apparent, who was fired shortly after the creation of Citigroup itself in 1998.

Dimon, the one-time dissident prince of Citigroup, now sits atop JPMorgan Chase. His bank is widely considered the most stable big bank today. Dimon is the king right now, and Weill is the former king. Those who went with the dissident prince have prospered. Those who stayed (or retired) have not. It's one of history's reversals, when the prince trounces the king.

The list of people who might have saved Citi starts with Dimon himself.

Jamie Dimon: While the boy wonder of finance has admitted making decisions that have cost JPMorgan a pretty penny as well, his notorious risk aversion is something Citigroup could have used a big dose of over the past few years.

Mike Cavanagh: A long-time finance executive at Citigroup, including various roles at Smith Barney, Cavanagh jumped ship to join Dimon at Bank One in 2000. He has risen to the position of chief financial officer at JPMorgan Chase. He clearly runs a tighter ship than his peers at Citigroup.

Steve Black: One of Dimon’s cronies from his days running Smith Barney in the 1990s, Black left Citigroup in disgust after Dimon was forced out. Now co-head of JPMorgan’s investment bank along with Bill Winters, Black chose to avoid some of the more toxic investments that Maheras snapped up with abandon at Citigroup.

Heidi Miller: Miller started as Dimon’s assistant at Travelers way back in 1992, then subsequently rose to become CFO of Citigroup before bolting for dot-com highflier Priceline in 2000. She wasn’t gone for long, and rejoined Dimon at Bank One in 2002. She currently runs JPMorgan Chase’s Treasury and Securities Services unit.

Bob Lipp: President of Chemical Bank way back in the day, Lipp hooked up with Weill and Dimon in 1986 and helped assemble Citigroup over much of the next two decades. After clashing with Weill, he eventually left to join Dimon at JPMorgan Chase before retiring earlier this year to join the private equity outfit Brysam Global Partners.

Bob Willumstad: Once considered a lock to succeed Weill at the helm of Citi, Willumstad was passed over for Prince and left soon thereafter to form Brysam with fellow Citigroup exile Marge Magner. Brysam, incidentally, is primarily funded by…JPMorgan Chase.

Frank Bisignano: Currently chief administrative officer of JPMorgan Chase, Bisignano held the same role at Citigroup’s global corporate and investment bank from 2000 to 2002. He left Citi to hook up with Dimon in 2005.

This list could be twice as long, depending on just how far down the Citigroup management charts you care to go. The result, at least for now: Sandy Weill’s dream of creating an impenetrable financial colossus really has been realized. The only problem? It’s not Citigroup but JPMorgan Chase.

Duff McDonald, a contributing editor at Conde Nast Portfolio and New York magazines, is currently working on a book about Jamie Dimon, to be published by Simon & Schuster in the fall of 2009.