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A career beyond the Icelandic financial crisis

After resolving one of the largest Icelandic banking collapses, attorney Jóhannes Jóhannsson (EMBA 2017) is developing his career with Cambridge Judge Business School.

Icelandic flag with coins behind

Jóhannes Jóhannsson

Jóhannes Jóhannsson (EMBA 2017)

If you were to join a bank as a lawyer during the “boom” years of the mid-2000s, you might not expect to spend the next decade dealing with the collapse of your country’s biggest bank.

Yet that is where Jóhannes Jóhannsson found himself in 2008, one year after joining Iceland’s largest bank – Kaupthing – as Senior Legal Counsel. The bank collapsed during the Icelandic financial crisis, and it was one of Jóhannes’ roles to help secure the bank’s assets and stabilise their value.

Jóhannes is now an independent Attorney at Law at Land Lögmenn, and saw his departure from Kaupthing as an opportunity to develop his professional skillset. This has led him to Cambridge Judge Business School and its Executive MBA programme, which he joined in September 2017.

Heart of the Icelandic crisis

The failure of Iceland’s banks in October 2008 resulted from heavy exposure to the global recession. Banks like Kaupthing were too big for the Icelandic government to bail out, spelling disaster for the national economy when they couldn’t be saved.

“97 per cent of the Icelandic banks became bankrupt in just four days,” explains Jóhannes. “The Icelandic krona collapsed, emergency legislation was implemented and people were rioting in the streets.”

Jóhannes was given a new role being responsible for the entire operation of the bank, with few colleagues, his legal expertise invaluable as Kaupthing was gradually wound up between 2008 and 2016. From asset management and overseas litigations to Chapter 15 filing and a composition with the bank´s creditors, there was a lot of work to be done.

“At the time of the composition, at the end of 2015, there was $22 billion in unsecured debt, owed to approximately 13,000 creditors in 100 jurisdictions. It was our job to maintain and protect the assets, until they could be liquidated and the proceeds could be distributed to the creditors.”

“We were dealing with pressures from government, creditors, borrowers, as well as personal threats and legal actions. Importantly, though, we were making decisions quickly in less-than-ideal circumstances. I’m proud to have helped bring this difficult process to a conclusion, and to have done my bit to help Iceland in dealing with the collapse of its biggest bank.”

Where next? Back to school

Jóhannes left the bank once his role had been fulfilled in 2016. Between 2008 and 2016, work dominated his life and career – what would he do next?

It is common for those considering an Executive MBA programme to be at a crossroads in their professional and personal lives. Jóhannes had always been intrigued by Cambridge, having visited the city in the past, but didn’t just want to study law again.

“It would have been easy for me to study my subject – law – at Cambridge, but I wanted to instead build on my knowledge and experience and learn something new.”

The Cambridge EMBA programme delivers a global business education for senior professionals from all backgrounds and industry sectors, preparing them for the next stage of their career.

“I wanted to build on what I had already achieved, but at the same time improve my position to maybe work in a different environment, country or market in the future.”

Learning outcomes so far

Jóhannes believes that courses such as Organisational Behaviour and Corporate Finance complement and enhance his legal role, but that other topics are helping to stretch him and improve his effectiveness as a senior professional.

“I’ve made a great deal of progress personally and professionally, but two of the most important concepts I’ve learnt are the probability calculations and decision trees from our Management Science course. Concepts such as these have literally changed my approach to my job, making me a better corporate lawyer.

“Joining this programme was one of my best decisions in life – if I had one regret, it was that I didn’t apply for it earlier in my career.”