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Quiet Boss at Citigroup Setting Tone for Wall Street

Michael Corbat, CEO fo Citigroup Inc.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Michael Corbat, CEO fo Citigroup Inc.

Michael L. Corbat, head of one of the biggest banks in the world, recently strolled through Marea, the Central Park South restaurant where Manhattan's elite go to be seen.

No one in the crowded room even looked up.

A top New York lawyer dining there that evening was asked about Mr. Corbat. "Mike who?" he said.

(Read more: Massachusetts fines Citi unit $30 million for analyst misconduct)

Flying under the radar appears to be just fine with Mr. Corbat — and with Citigroup, the financial giant he has run since October 2012.

To be a prominent face of Wall Street at a time when banks are feeling the heat from federal authorities on a number of fronts clearly has its drawbacks. Mr. Corbat's counterpart at rival JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, has been widely viewed as the point man for the bank as it wrestles with investigations by at least seven federal agencies, several state regulators and two foreign nations. And under Mr. Dimon, JPMorgan has in just a few years gone from a Washington favorite to a magnet for government scrutiny.

The low-key approach taken by Citigroup — which faces a number of investigations of its own — has not gone unnoticed inside JPMorgan. Some board members and executives there have recently pointed to Mr. Corbat in privately discussing the apparent advantages of a more self-effacing approach in a chief executive.

The perks of a lower profile have become clear to Mr. Dimon, too, according to people close to him who note he has recently refrained from giving interviews to focus, in part, on client meetings.

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JPMorgan's board, of course, remains solidly behind Mr. Dimon. But at least two directors, people close to the board say, have also privately acknowledged that Mr. Dimon's previous offhandedness toward authorities — including his referring several years ago to the former Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner as "Timmy" — at times rankled regulators, adding to the steep challenge the bank faces as it now tries to mend those frayed relationships.

Some bank lawyers say Mr. Corbat's quiet, workmanlike persona may be better suited to the current regulatory environment.

He is also proof, say people close to JPMorgan, that a skilled but relatively unknown insider can run a large, complex financial institution, helping dispel a view that Mr. Dimon will be nearly impossible to replace as chief when he leaves the bank.

To be sure, it is not as easy for Mr. Dimon, given his long tenure on Wall Street, to fly under the radar. For his part, he has recently adopted a more contrite tone with Washington, and has apologized for letting down regulators, vowing to bolster controls at JPMorgan.

(Read more: Global equities to rally another 13 percent by end-2014: Citi)

"We are building a more open and transparent relationship with our regulators," Mr. Dimon said in a September memo to employees.

To help change the tenor of his relationship with regulators, Mr. Dimon held town-hall style meetings in May and June, convening authorities from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

And the bank's recent $13 billion settlement does put some of its most troublesome legacy issues behind it. Yet JPMorgan continues to face investigations, including a roughly $6 billion trading loss in London last year and the hiring of well-connected employees in China.

At the same time, Citigroup's favor within regulatory circles has grown — while its presence in the headlines has dwindled — since Mr. Corbat took the reins last year.

The change for Citigroup has been swift. Before Mr. Corbat took over, for example, the Fed dealt an embarrassing setback to the bank in 2012, when it failed the bank on the so-called stress test, an important measure of financial health, rejecting its proposal to buy back its shares.

Just a year later, however, with Mr. Corbat at the helm, the bank handily passed the stress test. Its stock is up more than 40 percent since he took the top job.

Wall Street has long been a breeding ground for executives with big, often brash, personalities.

(Read more: Citigroupmust pay couple $3.1 million)

Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, went from a relative unknown before the financial crisis, to one of its most vilified characters. To soften his reputation, Mr. Blankfein has actually stepped up his profile, giving more television interviews and taking on the role of Wall Street's elder statesman.

Still, Mr. Dimon may be the best-known banker of them all. During the financial crisis, he was praised for successfully navigating JPMorgan through it.

In a 2009 biography of Mr. Dimon, "Last Man Standing," Duff McDonald wrote: "Wall Street has always been a place for high-flying conquerors. But Jamie Dimon has proved that he is not one of them. As a result his legend will endure better than most, and it will be that of someone with the unique skills, experience and temperament to stand above his peers at a crucial moment in history."

Mr. Corbat, on the other hand, has inspired no such encomiums. Indeed, after he became chief following the ouster of Vikram S. Pandit, Mr. Corbat told advisers, including the public relations chief Edward Skyler, Susan Kendall, the head of investor relations, and John C. Gerspach, the chief financial officer, that he wanted to maintain a low profile, focusing on meetings with regulators, clients and analysts.

"I don't want to meet my regulators on TV," Mr. Corbat said to his top advisers not long after getting the job, according to one executive who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of a firm policy against speaking to the media.

Looking to avoid headlines, the group immediately decided that Mr. Corbat should not speak at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a magnet for those with, and seeking, power.

Mr. Corbat, through Mr. Skyler, declined to comment on the bank's strategy. Mr. Skyler said the bank did not want to publicly discuss its communications strategy.

Still, over the past year, Mr. Corbat has conducted several hundred closed-door client and investor meetings and has met with President Obama twice.

That approach has even managed to win over one of Wall Street's most vocal bank analysts, Michael Mayo, who had been a vociferous critic of Citigroup before Mr. Corbat's appointment as chief. At the bank's annual meeting in April, Mr. Mayo, whose approach to the microphone at such meetings usually involves a critical remark, lauded the bank.

"The Mike and Mike show is off to a great start," Mr. Mayo said, referring also to the bank's chairman, Michael E. O'Neill.

Even on the bank's quarterly conference call with financial analysts, Mr. Corbat takes a back seat. He delivers opening remarks, but then turns most of the call over to Mr. Gerspach.

"Mike doesn't want to be invisible, but he's not interested in attention for attention's sake," said the person familiar with the bank's strategy but not authorized to speak on the record.

By Susanne Craig and Jessica Silver-Greenberg of The New York Times