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Sweden's Handelsbanken appoints its first female CEO

Stockholm

ONE of Sweden's biggest banks, Svenska Handelsbanken AB, is about to get its first female chief executive officer.

The Stockholm-based lender has named veteran Carina Akerstrom as CEO to replace retiring Anders Bouvin at the end of March. Ms Akerstrom, who is 56, has worked at Handelsbanken since 1986, most recently as deputy CEO.

In her new role, Ms Akerstrom will need to focus on Handelsbanken's approach to expenses. The bank has one of the highest cost-to-income ratios among Sweden's biggest lenders, and lags behind its peers when it comes to going digital. Handelsbanken last year announced a raft of strategic initiatives, including automating some functions, spelling the reduction of 1,600 full-time positions by the end of 2022.

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During Mr Bouvin's time as CEO, shares in Handelsbanken slipped about 4 per cent, underperforming Bloomberg's index of European financial stocks and Swedish peers SEB AB and Swedbank AB. The bank has also been more exposed to Brexit than its peers, with expansion in the UK a key plank in its strategy.

Handelsbanken has faced criticism from the Financial Conduct Authority in London, which found "serious weaknesses" in its systems for combating financial crime. That followed deep loan losses in 2017 from an exposure to a UK construction company that collapsed.

Most recently, Handelsbanken had to deal with complaints of staff abuse. Last year, two senior bankers resigned amid complaints of sexual harassment, forcing the lender to start an internal investigation into the matter.

As CEO, Ms Akerstrom will be joining a small but growing club of women holding the top job in Sweden's financial industry. Others include Swedbank CEO Birgitte Bonnesen, Danske Bank Sweden CEO Berit Behring and former SEB CEO Annika Falkengren.

Ms Akerstrom started as an employee of Handelsbanken's Kalmar branch in 1986. Since 2016, she has had the role of deputy group chief executive of the bank, with responsibilities including Handelsbanken's large corporate customers and its overall business operations in the Stockholm region. BLOOMBERG