Inside Citigroup Inc., women across the bank were raising alarms.

It was months before the US Supreme Court announced it would revisit Roe v. Wade, the landmark precedent establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. Yet across the country, states were pushing measures aimed at making the procedure illegal.

So near the end of last year, Citigroup quietly adopted a new policy to reassure worried employees. If it ever became necessary, the bank would pay for travel to a state where abortion is legal. Soon, Citigroup’s vow became national news -- and when word broke that the court was overturning Roe, the bank’s approach set the template for big employers across America. More than half expect to offer a similar benefit by next year, consultancy WTW found in a survey.

Big banks used to avoid touchy political issues that could interfere in business. But Citigroup hasn’t shied away, making moves guided by an unlikely figure: Sara Wechter, a former investment banker who for more than a decade has been a behind-the-scenes counselor to a roster of Citigroup’s leaders.

Since her 20s, Wechter has served as a sounding board to Chairmen Richard Parsons and Mike O’Neill and Chief Executive Officers Michael Corbat and now Jane Fraser. Wechter, 41, eventually took over the human resources department, where she has set in motion changes reshaping life at the bank for its 238,000 employees — and increasingly, on Wall Street and beyond. Yet she is virtually unknown outside the firm.

In the past few years, she was the architect of Citigroup’s unusually flexible work-from-home policies, enacted its “no jab, no job” requirement for Covid vaccinations and pushed the lender to voluntarily publish data on its gender pay gap.

Some measures aim to give Citigroup an edge in recruiting and retaining talent, but they’ve also encouraged rivals to follow suit. While CEOs such as JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s David Solomon summoned their workforces back to offices after Covid-19 lockdowns, Wechter’s alternative approach put pressure on managers across Wall Street to be more flexible, lest they lose key staff to Citigroup's recruiters. Both of those firms also ended up following Citigroup’s lead on providing abortion access — the latest sign of her growing influence.

Wechter says her moves have nothing to do with political views, but flow from the bank’s efforts to fairly manage employees.

“It wasn’t around a decision from the Supreme Court,” she said in an interview. “Our principle still holds, which is we believe our employees should have equal access to insurance and procedures in the US, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

‘Scary’ Chairman
Wechter lacked a Wall Street pedigree when she arrived as a junior investment banker at Citigroup almost two decades ago. She grew up in suburban New Jersey, the daughter of a community college professor and an executive at a security company. But managers spotted her ability to interact with higher-ups. When she tired of crunching numbers for deals and left for Viacom Inc., they lured her back within three months to work directly under a rising star: Jane Fraser, who would eventually become the first woman to run any of Wall Street’s largest banks.

But that was late 2007, and Citigroup was reeling from shoddy mortgage lending that would spiral into the financial crisis. She and Fraser spent the next two years reshaping the firm’s strategy, shuttering business lines and eliminating almost 100,000 jobs. When the bank named Parsons chairman of the board in 2009, Fraser recommended Wechter become his chief of staff.

As she interviewed for the role, Wechter found out she was pregnant with twins. She spent hours with Fraser drafting an email to inform Parsons. But when he called her to his office a week later and rattled off a to-do list, she realized that he hadn’t read the message.

“So I had to tell this scary man in person that I’m pregnant with twins and I remember I had no idea what his reaction is going to be,” Wechter recalled. “He took out his phone and he showed me a picture of this kid, and I was like, ‘Oh who’s that?’ And he was like, ‘That’s my grandson, Jack. We do kids. We do kids well.’”

The moment made a lasting impression on Wechter, demonstrating how an employer’s response to a life-changing moment makes a difference.

Still in her 20s, she now had a front-row seat to Citigroup’s efforts to repay the biggest US bailout of a bank in history — some $45 billion of support — as well as the drama that unfolded when the board ousted then-Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit. Three months later, the next CEO, Corbat, poached Wechter to be his chief of staff. She was initially the only woman reporting to him.

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