We are nothing in Asia, but want to build

Jean de Haller explains why Lombard Odier and Darier Hentsch merged, and what it means for the Asian private banking business.

Two ancient Swiss family private banks have merged. People in Geneva will tell you that these sorts of mergers happen every 20 years at most. So why now? We spoke to the new firm's partner responsible for Asia, Jean de Haller to find out.

Can you explain briefly, the histories of Lombard Odier and Darier Hentsch?

It's a very interesting story. Both banks have two centuries of history as a partnership. In 1796, the name of the bank was Lombard Hentsch. For two years, during the French occupation in Geneva, one Mr Lombard and Mr Hentsch were partners. They separated into Lombard Odier and Darier Hentsch and the story now is that we are merging again.

Did both banks start out as merchant banks?

Geneva was an independent city in the centre of Europe and was an important place for transactions between Northern and Southern Europe. Many merchants established themselves here. They became more and more experienced in currency dealings. At a certain point they decided it would be good to manage that money. They then began to drive the savings of these Geneva merchants into worldwide investments.

We stopped doing commercial banking quite early, as it was too risky for a partnership. We concentrated on the management of international assets.

How many generations of the family have worked in the bank now?

Between six and seven generations, depending on which line.

A number of partners are no longer members of the family. However, we are obliged to have one Lombard and one Odier to keep the name [under Swiss law].

In the new merged entity there are 14 partners - eight from Lombard Odier, six from Darier Hentsch. Plus we have a certain number of limited partners, of which I am one.

What is the difference between limited partners and full partners?

The liability of limited partners is limited to the amount they have put in the bank. The liability of full partners is total and unlimited.

Are there any members of the Hentsch family in this group of 14 partners?

Not for the time being. We have one Hentsch, who is a non-managing partner.

Can you explain why this merger happened?

We decided to merge so as to be able to deliver better for our clients, and future clients worldwide. We are absolutely determined to expand and for that we needed a concentration of capacity.

Markets are difficult and earnings in our area are declining. Still, the margins we have at Lombard and Darier are decent, and many would like similar margins. But we have to move and be proactive, which is why we merged. We cannot sleep. A lot of challenges lie ahead.

Take Asia, which is the market I am in charge of as a partner. It's a huge market. We have to invest. We have to hire the right people and keep them on board. It would be stupid for two banks 200 metres from one another, duplicating all the same investment in Asia. Typically in Asia, we are not known. We are nothing compared to what we want to be in the future.

That's very frank.

That's the situation now. But I am absolutely convinced we have something to offer. And we are building the capacity to deliver.

In Asia, we have an operation in Japan, which is quite successful compared to the competition, and we are building an operation out of Hong Kong. This is an asset management operation.

If a client came to you and wanted to open an account, it would have to be done in Geneva not in Hong Kong?

It could be done in Hong Kong, but with another bank. In Asia we are an asset manager. We could, however, open an account in Geneva.

In terms of the relationship with the client, you have two sorts of relationship. You have the asset management, advisory mandate and you have the deposit activity. We have banks in Geneva, Zurich, Gibraltar and Nassau. Maybe in the future, we will have a branch in Asia.

What does the merger of these two great, ancient houses suggest about the industry? Does it suggest there will be fewer Swiss private banks?

Competition gets stronger and stronger, and challenges are greater, and we need to attract more professional people to be able to deliver. It's a business which is not easy. It's not a capital-intensive business, but it's time-intensive. It's not possible to create private banking from nothing in just a few years. It takes time to build a reputation.

After this merger, there will be four private banks in Geneva: Pictet, Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch, Mirabaud and Bordier. But now with our merger, we will be one of the biggest private bankers in Europe in terms of assets under management.

Will there be further consolidation?

It will be possible for small institutions to survive if they have the right niche. It's clear that if you would like to be close to the client in Asia and different markets, you need to be a certain size. For that, you may need to merge.

How big is the new institution?

We have announced that we have around $95 billion under management.

When you market to Asian clients, is it a positive thing to be a family bank?

I am absolutely convinced about that. I have traveled to Asia for more than 15 years and I see a lot of similarities between rich families in Asia and rich families in Europe - where we are experts. Culture is different, and you have to adapt. But the problem that a family has in Malaysia or Taiwan - of how to preserve assets - is now exactly the same as we've seen in France, Italy or Germany.

Around 80% of our partners speak to clients, which means that the owners of the bank can talk to clients on the same level. We are a family company and we know what some of the problems are of running a family business.

Given your name is less well known in Asia, how do you convince them of your quality and gain their trust?

Since the early 1960s we have been investors in Asia on behalf of our clients. This means we have experience and we had come into contact with the owners of companies. So you meet top people.

We know Asia. And now, having invested in Asia over the years, we are able to offer the same services in Asia that we have offered to European clients. We can say, if you want to diversify your assets we can help.

We are still investing a lot in Asia for our clients and that gives us the capacity to meet people and create our network.

Is it an issue for Asian clients, that you don't have an annual report or publish a balance sheet?

As of today, it has not been a problem. For some clients we can confidentially provide a rating, which is one of the best.

Do you offer services such as advice on art, wine?

We are not a specialist in this area. We are providing asset management.

It's true that if you've known a client for some years and they want help with something else, we will quite naturally try to give advice like a good friend.

How many people do you have in Asia?

Post-merger, we are 15 in Tokyo, and 20 in Hong Kong.

On a strategic level, is China considered to be very important by Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch?

China is a fascinating country. China will be very important in terms of investment and asset management. I suspect that for us it is too early to be present.

We are better in mature markets and with the second generation. We experienced that already in some of the other Asian markets. We are not very exciting for those with first generation wealth.

They know better than us how to make money. I will never pretend to be able to make more money than the entrepreneur in his own business.

I can provide additional value-added, when he says, okay, I am taking a lot of risk, but I have to think about my family and diversification. That is the type of reaction of an older member of the first generation.

In China, it is still a little bit early. In the future, it will be a key market. But for the time being it is not a market for us.