High staff turnover bad for private banking, says Coutts's Asia chief

RBS Coutts's newly installed chief executive Nick Pollard laments the employee 'following culture' in private banking in the region.

Following the resignation of 70 staff from the Singapore office of RBS Coutts, new Asia chief executive Nick Pollard has a tough job on his hands replacing them, retaining clients and making further new hires.

Having recently relocated from London, where he was managing director at the UK private bank, he will remain in Singapore for the rest of this year before moving permanently to Hong Kong. Pollard replaces Hanspeter Brunner, who will become Asia head at BSI Bank, a Swiss private bank owned by Italian insurer Generali.

What plans do you have to restore confidence in RBS Coutts's brand and organisation in order to retain clients and remaining staff?

Nick Pollard: RBS has had its challenges in the past 12 months, and with certain Asian assets being disposed of by the group, people have speculated whether we're serious about being in Asia. But I wouldn't have come here if we weren't.

I'm here with a mandate to grow the business and to grow it quite ambitiously. We have a five-year plan for adding 200 new people in Asia and doubling assets under management -- which are currently at Sfr17 billion ($16.7 billion) -- and that's still the plan. And [the hiring target figure] is a bit more than that now, because everyone who's left will be replaced.

The medium-term goal is still the same -- we may have to go through a more patient period in the first couple of years to get there, but that's what we'll do.

Can you talk about the reasons for the departures -- for example, were bonuses the main issue, as has been reported?

Most of them have personal reasons for leaving -- bonuses being an issue for some, but there have been other issues as well. There's no one theme that's more dominant than others.

How has the hiring process been going so far?

We have a lot of applications coming in for the new positions. We put two adverts out around two weeks ago, one in the Straits Times and one in the South China Morning Post. To be honest, they were a declaration of intent -- we'd been quiet for a while and we needed to let people know we are still here. I don't think any of us quite expected the response we got. We ran it again this weekend just gone and the net response so far is around 1,100 responses, including some great CVs. We've also using a search firm to help us in Singapore in particular.

But surely the brand has been diminished?

I guess the issue is that if you lose a number of people, are you still able to provide the service to your clients you provided before they went? Clearly it's up to me and my management to make sure that happens. We are working very hard, we've got support from other parts of the group, we're bringing new people into the business.

So far there's been no client attrition at all. I'll caveat that by saying that no-one's left to start anywhere else yet, so you might not expect there to be any attrition just yet, but it's up to me and my team to make sure we limit that as much as possible.

Are you taking other actions to prevent client attrition?

We've gone through the usual round of retention exercises, which involve lots of arms round shoulders, press conversations etcetera. We've also looked at the compensation of our people, to make sure it's competitive. There's no item on the menu of defending yourself when you have this kind of challenge that we haven't had a look at implementing in some way.

Do you see further departures as possible?

I hope it's at an end, and my instincts and my guys tell me there won't be any more, but we'll see. Some people have been here [with RBS Coutts] in Hong Kong for 20 years, which is almost unheard of in private banking in Asia. They're committed to the organisation, and the strength of their support has really come through. I'm not anticipating we're going to have anyone else leaving, but who knows? It's a watching brief, and we're working hard to make sure [we don't see more resignations].

With regard to the 20 bankers who left, were they from all levels?

They were from all levels, from the team head level down to client relationship assistant. And they were largely from the non-resident Indian team, and a few from our Indonesia team.

It's worth saying that it's not unusual for whole teams to move, particularly in the Singapore market. While this is a big example of that kind of activity, we're not the only ones to have gone through this process and I'm pretty sure we won't be the last.

These kinds of moves are not good for the private banking industry. Private banking is all about trust, discretion, confidentiality. And if the market is so volatile that people are effectively exposing their portfolios to anyone who's prepared to pay the price -- that to me is not a client-centric business. It's something that we as an industry need to think about.

How would you tackle this kind of thing happening in the industry?

One of the issues is that the talent pool in private banking in Asia in general is quite small; it's a relatively new market. It means you have one or two people who dominate and lots of also-rans who are thinking about this as a good place to start their business.

A combination of external hiring and internal development is probably a much more sensible way of growing your business [than hiring whole teams from other firms], although you need an element of scale to do that.

My previous job was as MD of Coutts in the UK, a much bigger bank there than it is out here -- with 350 private bankers, for instance. The filling of the gaps on an annual basis as we grew that business meant we'd bring people from competitors, we'd move people around the group and we had a graduate development programme. There were lots of different ways of getting into that business. If you grow your own people, that's usually a much more sustainable way of getting into that business than if you're simply buying in teams from another organisation.

The other thing [such development] does -- and I'm not saying this is an altruistic, charitable approach for me at Coutts -- is increasing the talent pool in the industry as a whole.

What I'm seeing, certainly in Singapore, is a small group of talented people periodically jumping ship and going somewhere else. That isn't increasing the talent pool at all, it's just increasing the price of private bankers. I'm not a member of any private banking associations yet, but something I'd like to talk to my peers at other organisations about is how we feel about this as an industry.

In my time here and at Coutts in the UK, I never saw anything like this, not even when that market was very buoyant. Whole teams moving in the UK is very unusual, and I suspect in Europe. Here's there's a much more 'following culture' -- a few big individuals leave and there almost guaranteed to take people with them. That's quite an unusual facet of this market.

You sound fairly positive about being able to move things forward for both RBS Coutts and the private banking market in general in Asia.

The impression I want to leave you with is that we know there's a challenge, but our confidence in the region and in our brand in the region is not diminished. We'll be patient in how we rebuild the business. The mistake would be to have some knee-jerk reaction by bringing volume recruits through the door -- they have to be the right kind of people, quality people.

This business was identified as part of the strategic review of RBS's group businesses as one to invest in and to push, develop and grow. That's the job I've been given and that's what I will do.

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