Asia headcount grows fivefold at BSI

The Swiss private bank has been hiring feverishly in the region, but may find it harder to attract talent down the road.
Asia headcount grows fivefold at BSI

Even in the fast-growing Asian high-net-worth market, a wealth manager increasing its headcount from 38 to 180 in six months is startling. The success of Swiss private bank BSI in attracting this talent so quickly seems to be down to its well respected regional head and the unusually lucrative contracts it has offered.

The firm put down a marker last year by snaring ex-RBS Coutts co-chief executive Hanspeter Brunner to run its Asia operations in Singapore, and it has reinforced that commitment with a near-fivefold staff increase in the Lion City since September, largely poached from Coutts.

Fifty of the executives -- more than a quarter of the total -- are relationship managers, and the whole team reports to Brunner. He started on March 1 and reports directly to Alfredo Gysi, BSI's chairman and group CEO. Raj Sriram joined in December, also from RBS Coutts, as head of private banking for Southeast Asia and global head of South Asia.

And hires are still being made, adds Brunner, who would not reveal the names of any other members of staff.

So how has a relatively little-known firm in the region managed to attract so much talent so quickly? "The reason [BSI] can grow so aggressively is because Hanspeter Brunner commanded a lot of respect while he was in charge at Coutts and the vast majority of hires are all ex-Coutts," says a Hong Kong-based recruiter. 

It emerged in October that 70 staff had left the UK private bank's Singapore office, although the firm has since committed senior staff to the region, including Nick Pollard and Nick Cringle, and has added new execs.

"The fact that [Brunner] has had working experience with virtually all those RMs [relationship managers], plus the lure of lucrative three-year guarantees for key members of staff means the hires he makes are likely to be of decent quality," adds the recruiter.

"Take the ex-Coutts NRI [non-resident Indian] team in Hong Kong," he says. "Any expanding business would have bitten my arm off for those guys, but they chose instead to work for BSI, which was virtually unknown." (The whole of the NRI team received the three-year terms, he says.)

Hence, the growth in the Swiss firm's staff numbers will inevitably slow, he notes. "They have a distinct advantage in their recruitment plans at the moment, as they are really just reinventing what Coutts used to be," says the recruiter. "If they want to grow beyond their own contacts, then they will struggle as much as anyone in the search for talent."

BSI spokeswoman Jean Yap confirms Brunner's standing in the market, but concedes that continuing such rapid expansion will not be easy. However, executives have joined the firm for reasons other than simply the level of remuneration, she adds.

"It is true that Hanspeter is highly regarded and respected, especially by those who have worked with him," says Yap. "It is equally true that his appointment has been a factor in the enthusiasm candidates have shown in their tremendous response to our recruitment campaign." 

"However, Hanspeter would be the first to say that people make career moves for a variety of reasons and this applies to the question of leadership and compensation as well," she adds. "Money is only one factor -- and often not even the most important."

Yap says BSI's new employees have been brought together not only by their confidence in the regional leadership under Brunner and Sriram, but also "because of their belief in the bank's commitment to growth and a desire to align their long-term interests with those of clients in Asia".

"They want to be part of something significant, different and innovative; to contribute to a collective and sustainable strategy for enduring success beyond the usual short-term horizons," she adds. 

Rather than reshaping RBS Coutts's operation by another name, Yap says BSI is "an entirely new venture with a different strategy and a new beginning for everyone. There is a great sense of creating something new and special."

As for the longer term, she acknowledges that it will not be easy to sustain high growth levels. "But we have confidence in our vision and our ability to constantly adapt and grow under the new regional leadership," Yap says. "Time will tell, but we believe we have something unique and adaptable and talent will continue to find that very attractive."

Meanwhile, when asked what distribution agreements or channels BSI has in place in the region for its products and services, Brunner would only say: "BSI is focused on private wealth management, not the distribution of products per se. We have an open-architecture approach offering best-in-class products and services ranging from classic to alternative to innovative.

"But I must reiterate that it always depends on the client risk profile and preference," he adds. "That, more than anything else, is our priority."

With regards to the type of clients targeted in terms of net worth, Brunner says BSI looks at the 'whole client profile'. "It is not solely a numeric criteria, although obviously there are financial thresholds and realities to consider," he adds. "But there are other factors as well, such as relationships, networks and potential growth linked to the client's unique situation."

BSI faces growing competition both for talent and clients as new entities emerge, such as Bank of Singapore, the result of OCBC's acquisition of ING's Asian private-wealth business, and other private banks -- such as HSBC and JP Morgan -- transfer top-level execs to the region.

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