Swiss firm Pictet & Cie was awarded a banking licence by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority yesterday after a seven-month application process, enabling it to book assets in the city.

“It was a very pleasant surprise to see we have obtained our licence in record time,” its Asia wealth management head Claude Haberer tells AsianInvestor.

It is the 200-year-old institution’s fifth international booking centre and brings to 154 the number of licensed banks in Hong Kong, where Pictet has had a presence since 1986 but has not sought to build on any significant scale – until now.

“This is one of the steps we needed to take to be on an equal footing with competitors in the region,” Haberer states. “I am very excited now it is done. We have grown a lot in the last year and have hired a lot and I am very confident we will be able to do so even more in the future.”

He suggests this licence is the tool through which Pictet intends to push into the North Asia region, having held a banking licence in Singapore for the past eight years.

“We will be able to cover the markets in the region more effectively,” he says. “We all know that Hong Kong clients normally transact in Hong Kong and that wealthy Chinese mainlanders come to Hong Kong for their financial operations. If you want to penetrate these two major markets, a bank in Hong Kong is a must.”

He describes Hong Kong as Pictet’s immediate priority, and talks of China as a very important strategic market.

In a detailed interview last November, Haberer told AsianInvestor that since joining the firm in February 2011 he had hired seven relationship managers in Hong Kong – taking the total to 11.

Yesterday he confirmed he had added another one to take the tally to 12 and had hired one more in Singapore, where there are now 13 RMs. He adds: “We have confirmed senior hirings today who we are expecting to join in the coming weeks.”

AsianInvestor reported only this week that An Hui Ling and a team of relationship managers covering Greater China had quit Credit Suisse in Singapore. It is understood they are headed to Pictet to join Credit Suisse’s former Asia-Pacific COO Anuj Khanna, who started at Pictet as head of wealth management for South Asia this January.

Haberer declines to be drawn on this, saying only that the people Pictet has just hired come from various banks and are in Hong Kong and Singapore.

“The relationship managers we have hired and are going to hire will have more tools at their disposal in particular to focus on the Hong Kong/China markets, where we still have a long way to go,” he stresses.

“Of course we have not reached the limit of what we want to do in terms of marketing coverage, and we are going to hire more senior bankers. But we have put the momentum in place and today the profile of the bank in Asia has evolved.”

Apart than Khanna, other senior hires Pictet has made in the past six months include Sharon Chou last November as head of wealth management for North Asia and Richard Mak last August as regional head of advisory services.

There are several operational undertakings Pictet needs to complete before it can start operating as a bank in Hong Kong, including finalising the necessary SFC licences.

Haberer stresses that the private bank operates on an open-architecture basis, with the majority of the funds on its platform from third-party managers.

“Pictet is at the front of the radar screen of any asset manager because it is one of the premier fund houses in the world,” he says. “We are going to get bigger on the private banking side, and be a bigger distributor and adviser of a range of funds.” (Pictet Asset Management recently opened an office in Taiwan to distribute in-house product.)

Pictet & Cie has $360 billion in assets under management globally and is AA- rated. A spokesman says it collected $16 billion in net new assets in 2011 across all business lines combined, driven by private banking.

It does not break out its Asia AUM, although in November AsianInvestor reported that Pictet had approximately $5 billion in private client assets in Asia (which Haberer declines to comment on).