BNP Paribas's Asia wealth management chief is partially relinquishing control of the business, which should come as no surprise. Mignonne Cheng is 70 years old and has spent 26 years at the group, including six as regional head of the private bank.

What has raised some eyebrows, however, is that she is handing over the title of Asia-Pacific chief executive, but staying on as chairman.

Succeeding Cheng in the CEO post is Pierre Vrielinck, previously CEO for Switzerland and emerging markets, and one headhunter said the firm is now putting a bigger focus on expanding its Southeast Asian business.

Uncertainty

Yet the new leadership structure has left some at BNPP WM unsure of who is now running the show, said another Hong Kong-based recruiter specialising in wealth management. 

He added: “Cheng has overseen a stable and solid business and is not stepping down from the CEO role for performance reasons. But what’s interesting is that she is very much remaining in the business.”

Cheng is very well connected within BNP Paribas on the corporate side in France and may have been reluctant to relinquish control, added the unnamed recruiter. She previously worked in the corporate and institutional part of the group.

Still, Geoffrey Bevan, head of private wealth maangement at recruitment firm Asia Carbon Search, said maintaining Cheng as chairman was a good move, given her experience and connections in the region and across the bank. This will help the bankers in Asia utilise the group's core offerings, such as its property services, he noted.

Moreover, Vrielinck knows the bank well from the top down, noted Bevan. “I can see him building a good rapport with Eric Raynaud [Asia-Pacific CEO for the group]. And promoting from within is a good sign; the bank wants to maintain its core values and continuity in Asia.”

Southeast Asia ambitions

Meanwhile, BNPP WM has set out its ambitions for growth.

Vincent Lecomte, co-CEO of BNP Paribas WM, said the firm aims to move from being one of the top 10 players in the region into the top five. As of end-2015 it lay 10th by Asia-Pacific assets under management with $65 billion, while Julius Baer ranked fifth with $75 billion, according to Asian Private Banker. But as of end 2016, BNPP WM had $73.4 billion in AUM.

Against the backdrop of wealth management acquisitions in Asia in recent years, the firm appears to have the scale to maintain a successful business in the region.

Moreover, Bevan said BNPP WM has kept costs low relative to other players in the region and has seen strong growth in Greater China in the past few years both in personnel and AUM. 

Where they will be looking to grow is Southeast Asia, he noted, probably by hiring staff in Singapore above all.

“European banks have had quite a bit of negative press in recent years, and BNP Paribas have kept their heads down,” added Bevan. “But now is the right time to pounce.”

The most high-profile example of difficulties facing European banks has been the string of problems to have hit Deutsche Bank in the past year or so. Meanwhile, various other European lenders – such as ABN Amro, Barclays and Societe Generale – have sold off their wealth units in Asia or otherwise exited the region in recent years.

BNPP WM confirmed that Greater China and Southeast Asia have been important areas for growth, but declined to comment on potential hiring plans.