Julius Baer’s Hong Kong chief executive and North Asia CEO Andrea Benenati is set to leave the firm to set up as an independent asset manager.

Benenati, who joined the Swiss bank in 2006, will be replaced by Tom Meier who will relocate from Singapore in June to become chief executive of the firm’s newly anointed Hong Kong branch and its North Asia chief, in addition to his role as CEO for Asia and the Middle East. However, this is only likely to be a temporary move.

AsianInvestor understands Alexander Floersheim, Julius Baer’s head of investment advisory services in Hong Kong, will also leave and join Benenati in setting up the investment advisory firm, expected to be in Hong Kong despite rumours (which have been denied) that Benenati may move to Geneva.

Benenati announced his decision internally last Thursday. “I have deeply enjoyed my five years at Julius Baer and we have accomplished a lot,” he tells AsianInvestor. “It is time for me to embark on a new challenge, and I am very enthusiastic to be building my own business.”

Benenati has been instrumental in establishing and building Julius Baer’s Hong Kong office, which only late last year was upgraded to full branch status. As such, the timing of his move comes as a surprise, and his exit will be a loss for the firm.

He has been a private banker in Asia for over 12 years, having started in Switzerland and London. He worked as Korea relationship manager and then Korea team head for UBS before switching to Credit Suisse as Korea team head.

The late Alex Widmer brought him to Julius Baer as CEO for North Asia in early 2006, which was seen as a daring move at the time as he did not have a market profile in Hong Kong.

“Andrea is an unusual guy, not only running the North Asia business but he also carries his own book of clients,” says a source. “He has done a very good job. He has a humble background, which is one of the things that makes him so endearing. What you see is what you get.”

While this move will give Benenati more independence, he will not be leaving the Julius Baer family. Like many private banks, Julius Baer runs an external asset manager model, and its contracts allow bankers to become independent as long as they keep the assets within Julius Baer.

Julius Baer separated its private banking and asset management businesses in September 2009. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, chairman Raymond Baer confirmed that the bank has no intention of returning to third-party investment management for institutions.

So Benenati will enjoy greater flexibility by having an independent advisory firm, but the custodian and the product platform will still be that of Julius Baer.

As for Meier, his switch to Hong Kong makes sense, given Benenati’s departure creates a vacuum and that only this January Julius Baer appointed David Lim as chief executive for Singapore, in addition to his role of head of private banking for Southeast Asia.

Having joined Julius Baer in 2005 as CEO for Asia and the Middle East, Meier relocated from Zurich to become Singapore CEO in July 2009 alongside his other roles. He relinquished that position to Lim this year to focus on strategic development, and a similar pattern will likely emerge in Hong Kong.

Leading internal candidates to fill Benenati’s boots include Ivan Guidi, who was part of the team that set up the bank’s Hong Kong office and is currently head of offshore markets for Japan, Korea and the Philippines, and Ian Pollock, CFO for Asia and the Middle East and COO for North Asia.

However, the bank may choose an external candidate, although Meier filling the immediate need at least affords the bank breathing space.

In a note to AsianInvestor, Meier says: “I have had a long-standing relationship working with Andrea both at Julius Baer and before that. We are sad to see him go.

“I am looking forward to being based back in North Asia and with the support of the North Asia management team. Our RMs in the region are of the highest quality and I am enthusiastic to immerse myself even more into the market.”

Julius Baer now employs more than 500 people in Asia and the Middle East. Its total client assets amounted to SFr271 billion ($278 billion) at the end of April this year, with assets under management accounting for SFr173 billion.