Bank Sarasin is seeking a new head of Southeast Asia in Singapore to replace Grace Barki, who left the Swiss private bank last week for personal reasons, AsianInvestor can confirm.

Barki had only been with the firm for just over two years, having been appointed vice-chairman and head of Southeast Asia in December 2009 at what was then Bank-Sarasin Rabo (Asia).

A Sarasin spokeswoman says Barki has taken early retirement for family reasons. But as a senior banker with over 25 years’ experience she is likely to attract interest from other parties, notes a source, who suspects she is too young to retire and will re-enter the market after some time out.

Barki is an Indonesian citizen domiciled in Singapore who prior to Sarasin spent five years with UBS, where she managed its Indonesia and Philippines markets and was responsible for over 200 staff. Before that she worked for Citigroup Private Bank, having begun her career with Citibank in Singapore and Jakarta in 1985.

Last November it emerged that Safra Group had agreed to acquire Rabobank’s controlling stake in Bank Sarasin & Cie for around $1.1 billion as it sought to expand its private banking presence in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It purchased 68% of the voting rights and a 46% equity interest.

Julius Baer was among those firms eager to acquire Rabobank’s interest in Sarasin as a means to increase scale and compete in an environment where clients are sitting on the sidelines and the cost of compliance is putting a burden on business bottom lines.

It failed in its bid. But Julius Baer did then hire eight staff from Sarasin to cover Greater China. Elina So, who quit Sarasin as vice-chair of client advisory, started at Julius Baer on January 3 as a senior client partner covering Greater China and heads a new Hong Kong-based team.

Joining So’s team at Julius Baer were Candy Lam (So’s sister) and Carol Yau as senior relationship managers, Camille Suen as relationship manager, and Jenny Wong, Vera Shau, Vicki Li and Kary Ho as assistants. Eddie Koh has also joined from Sarasin.

Headquartered in Brazil, Safra is strong in Latin America and as such will provide additional distribution channels for Sarasin product.

At the start of this year AsianInvestor reported that Sarasin had 42 relationship managers in the region, two thirds of them based in Hong Kong and the rest in Singapore.

Last August Sarasin’s Singapore office was upgraded from a purely wholesale branch to an offshore branch (allowing it to take Singapore dollar deposits, with certain restrictions on deposits from local residents), although this only became operationally effective this year.

Asked if there were plans to apply for a full bank branch licence in the city-state, Sarasin’s Asia CEO Enid Yip noted earlier this year that completion of the shareholding acquisition by Safra could take up to six months. “I would say the fourth quarter of this year would be the earliest [for a branch application],” she added.