Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Michael Seelhof, SDM '12: A Banker Adds Theory to Experience in Managing Complexity

By Eric Smalley

Michael Seelhof, SDM '12
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography
You'd think that merging two investment banks at the height of a global financial meltdown would be enough complexity for one lifetime. But the experience left Michael Seelhof, SDM '12, wanting more. The German banker has come to MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program to develop a theoretical understanding of his hard-won experience and take complexity management to the next level.

"It's what I've done in the past — managing complexity and managing risk — and I think that's the most important thing that a senior manager should do," Seelhof says. "But I did it intuitively. I want to have a more formal education in complexity management."

Having chalked up 16 years in banking, overseen a successful merger and brought the merged entity to profitability, Seelhof was ready to shift gears. He examined his options for furthering his education and found SDM an obvious fit. The program will give him an understanding of how large systems work, how they interact, how they exhibit complexity and what to do to manage it.

Seelhof was drawn to SDM's focus on key aspects of system design: sustainability, human behavior, and organizational design. He was also attracted to the program's unique collaborative learning approach.

Seelhof started his banking career in IT, armed with a master's degree in mathematics. He moved on to risk control and then strategic development, including mergers and acquisitions — all at Commerzbank AG. In 2005, Seelhof was handed the task of turning around Commerzbank's loss-generating investment bank, Corporates & Markets (C&M). He was appointed chief operating officer of C&M and he set about closing the unit's risky proprietary trading desks and focusing on the bank's core business: client services. The investment bank quickly returned to profitability and remained stable throughout the financial crisis.

In 2009, Commerzbank acquired Dresdner Bank. Seelhof was put in charge of merging the two companies' investment banks. "That ... includes a lot of complexity because you have to think about how units operate with each other, what kind of product portfolio you want to have, you have to think about the competition, and you have to think about risk," he says.

The merger involved a team of nearly 1,500 people and required integrating an investment bank twice the size of C&M that was running at a loss. All this occurred during the worst financial crisis in decades. In the end, Seelhof merged the two investment banks into one organizational structure with integrated processes and IT infrastructure. He cut costs by 50 percent and made the unit profitable.

As for what comes after SDM, a return to financial services is the most likely option for Seelhof, but he is also open to senior positions in other sectors. "SDM is giving me that broader perspective to be able to work and use my experience in different industries," Seelhof says.

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