You know the world of private banking is finding its voice when the Asia head of conservative Swiss firm Pictet & Cie says of his regional expansion plans: “I want an army, not just of generals, but of soldiers.”
It’s most certainly an uncharacteristic quote from a venerable 200-year-old institution such as Pictet, with its stoutly defended AA- long-term rating from agencies Moody’s and Fitch.
It’s also a little misrepresentative of Asia-Pacific CEO Claude Haberer, who said it during an interview with AsianInvestor this week (he also regularly referred to the firm’s stability and serene approach to building a business).
But Haberer, who started at Pictet on Valentine’s Day this year, is no hopeless romantic. He is striving to strike a balance between emphasising the firm’s traditional Swiss identity while at the same time adapting to the realities of a changing industry.
Still, the stars seem to be aligning quite nicely for Pictet, if it can shake its inherent shyness long enough to promote its brand more effectively in Asia. After all, the institution has had a presence in Hong Kong since 1986 but has not sought to build out on any significant scale.
AsianInvestor was told by a reliable source that Pictet has around $5 billion in private client assets in Asia, although Haberer disputes this figure. As a private firm, it does not break out its regional numbers, but globally the institution has $401 billion in AUM, split between institutional and private business.
Several factors are in Haberer’s favour. Firstly, the wealth management industry is enjoying its turn in the limelight as investment banking is spoon fed its regulatory medicine and downsizes.
If anything the 2008 crisis is viewed as an inflection point for private banking, championing the virtues of genuine relationship building at the expense of commercial distribution.
Couple that with the fact that Asia is in a global sweet spot in terms of wealth accumulation, and Pictet rightly feels now is the time for Haberer to chart its Asia ascent; and he has been busy.
Since he arrived, Haberer has added seven relationship managers in Hong Kong – taking the total to 11 and on a par with the dozen bankers Pictet has in its Singapore booking centre.
He has also transferred a head of operations from Europe, and hired a head of human resources and a head of finance, all in Hong Kong, as well as half a dozen staff for its advisory desk (specialists in equity, bonds, foreign exchange and funds).
Moreover, just this week Pictet announced it had hired Sharon Chou in Hong Kong as its new head of wealth management for North Asia, effective from January 1 next year. She replaces Franco Cheng, who in effect is retiring but remains affiliated as a senior adviser to the board.
Chou spent 14 years at BNP Paribas, most recently as head of credit and risk management within its wealth management division. She left in November, and BNPP says her replacement has been identified internally and will take effect shortly.
“Sharon and I have known each other for many years,” says Haberer, who himself headed BNP’s private bank for North Asia between 2005 and 2009 before moving on to become head of key clients for the French bank’s wealth management business until his departure to Pictet this year.
Haberer describes Chou as experienced, well-rounded and just the sort of recruit that Pictet targets with a deep understanding of products, having been in charge of risk and credit.
“Her remit is to make sure our set-up in Hong Kong grows in a consistent, regular and safe manner,” he says, reverting to Swiss type. “We tend to grow in a reasoned or progressive manner. We are a rather conservative bank and we need well-rounded people to grow.”
Chou will focus on expanding the North Asia business, which will be greatly helped if the Hong Kong Monetary Authority approves Pictet’s application for bank status, enabling it to book assets in the city. The papers were submitted in September.
Haberer admits it is difficult to find seasoned private bankers with Asia experience, but suggests that the Pictet story is heard favourably in today’s more austere environment.
“I have spoken to a number of senior relationship managers, who say they would never have thought they would come to us to discuss a potential move. But we offer an alternative,” he says, arguing that its old fashioned private banking model is back in fashion.
Haberer says he will continue hiring and has focused on Hong Kong and North Asia initially as its presence was small in comparison with Singapore and so had more catching up to do. “I am going to look at growing the Singapore platform because there is a world of opportunities,” he says.
Pictet targets ultra-high-net-worth individuals with $30 million in net worth, although Haberer confirms: “When you start afresh in a region or you have a new sales drive, people want to try you out so we set our minimum [account entry] at $3 million.”
He talks up the advantages of Pictet as an unlisted private partnership without the pressures of quarterly reporting, but says the firm is not interested in broadcasting its brand on a grand scale. “Pictet does not make the headlines, and ultra-high-net-worth individuals appreciate that,” he says.
Therein lies the dilemma; finding a balance between its conservative roots while communicating its attributes to an unfamiliar client base. Clearly Pictet has turned a page in terms of commitment to the region. But whether you see its name appearing more liberally in the media is less certain.