By Maria Aspan
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Citigroup Inc Chief Executive Vikram Pandit, whose bank barely survived the financial crisis, on Sunday stepped into a once-unlikely position: role model to America's future financial leaders.
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"Over the last two years, I too, received a great education, facing crises and making decisions -- many of them very difficult," Pandit told graduating business students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School on Sunday.
He told the students the only way they could have learned more about the American economy and global economics over the last two years "is to have lived it -- an experience, that I can assure you, was not full of pure enjoyment."
The speech was another step in the long, painstaking rehabilitation of Pandit, who took over Citigroup at the end of 2007 and barely held onto his job during the worst of the crisis.
On Sunday, he told the Wharton audience that accepting the top job at Citigroup in late 2007 was "a bit like becoming captain of the Titanic after the ship hit the iceberg."
His bank took some $45 billion in U.S. bailout funds in 2008 and 2009, and counted the government as a shareholder as recently as December.
But since then, Citigroup has reported its first full-year profit since 2007, shed the last of the U.S. government's common share stake, and even on Friday reinstated a nominal dividend to shareholders.
"They've turned the corner," said Michael Robinson, senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis consultant that has done work for Citigroup in the past.
"They've cleaned things up and now they're rolling out the CEO ... A year or two ago that would not have worked, but now I think they're doing the right thing to raise their profile," he said.
About 4,800 people, including almost 1,000 graduates, heard Pandit speak inside the University of Pennsylvania's Palestra stadium as gray skies forced a last-minute relocation indoors.
The crowd responded to Pandit with healthy applause, especially when he joked about his own graduate business degree from Wharton rival Columbia Business School. But his Titanic quip garnered almost no reaction from the audience.
Students after the ceremony gave Pandit mixed reviews, although they said they do not hold him responsible for the financial crisis.
"I don't think people think everything's fixed" in the financial world, said Pat McBrearty, 28, a graduate who plans to go into consulting.
Pandit is "a leader in an industry that people still have issues with," he said.
Pandit has already reaped some benefits of leading the bank's slow recovery. His base salary this year will be $1.75 million, up from the token $1 he has taken since 2009.
His comfort level has increased at the same time. Pandit has been increasingly visible -- and good-humored -- over the last few months, making speeches at events ranging from a UJA-Federation of New York charity fund-raiser to a conference of prominent Chinese-American citizens.
But skeptics remain. One hedge fund manager greeted Pandit at the UJA-Federation event this month by expressing surprise that he was "still around."
And some bank investors have yet to be won over. A weak trading environment and shrinking consumer loan book are cutting into Citigroup's revenue, raising concerns about the bank's ability to move from recovery to growth.
"To this day, it's considered mismanaged, it's unwieldy, it's still the same Citibank," said longtime Pandit critic Bill Smith of Smith Asset Management, whose company owns Citi shares.
On Sunday, Pandit told the students that he has been "second-guessed from the outside, and sometimes from the inside -- almost continuously ... But we made it."
But he added that Pandit still has work to do to fully restore both his bank's reputation and his own.
"If the stock continues to perform, and the company avoids a major misstep, Pandit has a shot at long-term redemption. But that's something that's measured in many more years than one," Gordon said.
(Reporting by Maria Aspan, editing by Maureen Bavdek)