Sunday, May 16, 2021

"Inside the Secretive Swiss Bank for the World’s Richest People"

We used to think of Sarasin as being of the same quality, though 35 years younger and earlier to ESG, but since Safra took control they seem to be just another Swiss Bank.

From Bloomberg via Yahoo Finance:

In the mythology of private banking, Banque Pictet & Cie SA stands apart. Over the course of more than two centuries, the Swiss institution has discreetly tended to the assets of the very rich, led by a small crop of partners who form the most exclusive men-only club anywhere outside the Vatican.

In its entire history, only 43 individuals — all men, all white — have risen to the rank of Pictet managing partner, creating a bond more enduring than your typical marriage. From their Geneva perch, they oversee more than 600 billion francs ($662 billion) in assets under management and a level of profitability far beyond larger, publicly-listed peers, often rewarding each of them with more than 20 million francs a year.

But in recent years, an unsettling new trend crept into Pictet, cracking the façade of corporate cohesion: key employees began leaving. Over the course of 2019, a dozen long-tenured relationship managers at the wealth unit departed. Within days in September of that year, four leading bankers from the team looking after Russian clients handed in their resignations. Bankers for Scandinavia and Israel followed, putting billions in assets under management at stake.

At the heart of the exodus lies a culture clash. Longtime employees were bristling at the brash style of the flood of recent hires brought on to manage the money of the ultra rich, particularly the explosive growth of new wealth in Asia that has set off an aggressive race for assets and talent with bigger rivals like UBS Group AG and HSBC Holdings Plc.

Yet for others, change wasn’t happening fast enough; some newcomers who had signed up to the promise of the rejuvenated Pictet were departing again in frustration.

Interviews with a dozen people familiar with Pictet’s private-wealth arm reveal a business at a crossroads, confronted with the reality that, in order to stay ahead, Switzerland’s preeminent private bank must adapt. That means embracing more risk and changing the client relationship — away from the concierge-like approach that endured for generations toward a more transactional model.

That can be tough for employees accustomed to the principle of caution and secrecy that guided Pictet through the centuries. But change has also brought opportunity to rethink old habits and expand the bank on the global stage.

The people asked not to be identified discussing the bank’s inner workings. Pictet declined to comment for this story.

While overall attrition at Pictet Wealth Management stands at an all-time low of 2.8%, the evacuation of longtime talent has reverberated through the corridors of the five-story modernist headquarters. The departures startled the partners, who viewed the outflow as an assault on an institution priding itself in flat fluctuation. So late in 2019, they gathered in a spartan conference room for what the partners call their salon meeting to learn more about what was behind the defections.

Sitting in tiered formation at the large conference table, much in the same way they congregate several times a week to discuss the order of business, the men heard of tensions, a dispute over restraint and renewal rippling through the bank’s private wealth subsidiary.

“Pictet is in between two worlds,” says Pedro Araujo, a senior researcher at the University of Fribourg, who has studied Switzerland’s elite families. “They are in the old world of Geneva private bankers, and the new world of globalized finance, where they want to be present internationally, they want to grow, they want to present themselves as modern, but not too much. Two worlds that are on a collision course.”

For all its tradition, Pictet has become more attuned to change in recent years. The company transformed its legal status after the end of banking secrecy in 2014, disclosing more performance metrics as a result. One of its partners, Rémy Best, had already made his mark revamping the asset-management unit. Next, he turned his attention to the wealth division, long the beating heart of Pictet.

It turned out that the operation required fresh blood. And the bank found it in Boris Collardi, who performed one of the most audacious maneuvers in Swiss banking in 2018 when he abruptly left as CEO of Zurich private-banking nemesis Julius Baer and decamped to the shores of Lake Geneva to join Pictet.

On the face of it, Collardi is everything that the typical Pictet stakeholder is not. More bonvivant than ascetic financier, Collardi, 46, stands apart as the first outside partner in decades. He also brought serious star power and a dose of bonhomie to the Pictet franchise that values uniformity over individualism, down to the subdued color palette of the partners’ perfectly tailored suits.

Collardi, by contrast, is known to greet close colleagues with a hug or a peck on the cheek; in meetings, he is the first to take off his suit jacket and jokingly complains about having to wear a tie. His ascent to the Pictet partnership not only made him one of the youngest people in recent history to hold that title, it also tipped the scale for the first time to a majority of members in the group who aren’t descendants of the founding families.

In Collardi, the partners identified a peer who could pick up from Best, a longtime acquaintance who had introduced the new hire to the other partners. And Collardi was already well versed in Asia, where Pictet was keen to tap into an affluent class of newly minted billionaires preparing to pass on their wealth to the next generation.

But Collardi also had to adjust to the new reality of no longer being the undisputed leader. Instead, he is now one voice among seven, where every decision is made in unison. The weekly meetings are presided over by senior partner Renaud de Planta, who declined to comment for this story.

Given that the average tenure of an active partner is 20 years, collegial harmony is the glue that holds together the senior team. That hasn’t stopped Collardi from moving swiftly in his new role. Within a year, more than 100 of his loyalists had followed him to Pictet, including close to the complete teams for the Middle East and Latin America.

Collardi also accelerated an overhaul of the investment and trading platforms, replacing some of the longest-serving portfolio managers with investment advisers half their age.

By the end of 2020, Pictet's wealth bankers had swelled to 1,098 from 740 just five years earlier, an expansion not dissimilar to absorbing a full-blown acquisition.

The changes echo the overhaul that Collardi enacted at Julius Baer. Over the course of a decade, he turbo-charged the storied private bank, sending it on a breakneck expansion from Sao Paulo to Singapore, doubling assets under management as a result. But despite his meteoric rise, Collardi remained, by his own account at the time of the move, “only an employee.” Pictet, by contrast, offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become an entrepreneur with extra financial legroom but without the daily grind of running a publicly-listed company.

Making Pictet partner brings a stake in a steady business whose owners share in more than 500 million francs in annual profit. Up until a few years ago, the firm was so old-fashioned that managing partners were expected to be addressed as Notre Sieur, a formal French title for sire.

The challenge facing the partners is that in order to grow, they need to aggressively target Asia, the epicenter of wealth creation. But that requires the embrace of new — and potentially riskier — investment assets, chief among them structured products, which use derivatives to track the performance of an underlying asset....