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Public dramas are rare at Switzerland’s Pictet private bank. Partners at the Geneva-based finance house, founded in 1805, serve on average at least two decades; they have never made an acquisition. The last time an outsider was appointed directly to the partnership was in 1998.
So the poaching on Monday of Boris Collardi, the 43-year-old chief executive of Zurich rival Julius Baer, to become a partner and co-head of global wealth management next year was seen as a bold move by the venerable Geneva bank.
Mr Collardi will not just become Pictet’s youngest partner. He brings a forceful reputation based on aggressive expansion of Julius Baer’s wealth management activities, especially in Asia, and a direct leadership approach.
Nicolas Pictet, who became senior partner last year, described the appointment as a “powerful endorsement” of the bank’s strategy focused on its independence, organic growth and the long term.
But both sides face cultural adjustments. “I’m sure there will be a learning curve,” Mr Collardi told the Financial Times as he worked on handover arrangements at Julius Baer’s Zurich headquarters after handing in his notice at the end of last week.
Since the 2008 global financial crises and the US-led global clampdown on tax evasion, Swiss banks have faced significant pressure to boost investment performance and cut costs. They have re-written their business models to focus on tax-compliant wealth management.
Both Julius Baer and Pictet have successfully found growth opportunities overseas — especially by serving the newly rich of emerging markets. But among Swiss financial institutions, the two banks are very different.
Pictet, headquartered in French-speaking Geneva, emphasises discretion and continuity — as exemplified by having just 42 partners in the two centuries it has been trading. Despite occupying modern offices on the city’s outskirts, the bank boasts that its principles of ownership and succession have not changed since its founding in Napoleonic times.
To acquire their initial stake, new partners borrow from others, and gradually pay them back over time. Partners meet most days in Geneva, and decisions are made through consensus. In the first half of 2017, Pictet’s profits rose 29 per cent to Sfr247m, despite the low interest rates that have made it harder for private banks to make money.
At the end of September, it had SFr492bn in assets under management or custody. Privately owned, it reveals few details about its performance, however, and only started reporting headline results in 2014.
In contrast, the listed Julius Baer is based in German-speaking Zurich, and was founded in the late 19th century during a period of industrialisation in Switzerland.
Headquartered on Zurich’s prestigious Bahnhofstrasse, it is near neighbours to UBS and Credit Suisse, behind which it trails in terms of assets under management — but from where it often recruits staff. Julius Baer had SFr393bn in assets under management at the end of October — a sum Mr Collardi helped more than double during his tenure.
As well as expanding its team of client relationship managers, Mr Collardi drove growth through significant acquisitions — including in 2012 of Merrill Lynch’s non-US wealth management business.
An attraction for Pictet is Mr Collardi’s experience in Asia, according to analysts. The region is hardly new to the Geneva bank, however: Pictet has served Asian clients from an office in Hong Kong since 1986 and in Singapore since 1995. More than a third of Pictet’s 4,200 staff are already based outside Switzerland.
Bank industry executives argue that Mr Collardi was recruited for his broader management skills, rather than just his Asian experience. “He is arguably the most successful Swiss private banker. That must exactly be why they got him,” said one.
Nevertheless, there is potential that the bank might see the need for change with the new blood.
One Pictet insider said that staff in its asset management division were nervous about Mr Collardi’s appointment, since one of his early moves at Julius Baer was to sell its asset management division GAM. Since then, Julius Baer has constantly emphasised the benefit of offering an independent choice to its clients, rather than championing an in-house asset manager.
Pictet might also have felt under pressure to open up given wider moves within the industry. Earlier this year, Geneva-based rival, Lombard Odier recruited Annika Falkengren, chief executive of Swedish lender SEB, as managing partner. Still, even after Mr Collardi’s appointment, Pictet’s partners will remain exclusively male — and French speaking.
Mr Collardi justified his move in personal terms, even if the move still puzzled some bank executives given Mr Collardi was seen as a possible future chief executive of Credit Suisse or UBS.
But after nine years as chief executive, he wanted a change, according to people familiar with his thinking. He has strong family ties to the Geneva region. A close colleague said it was “a dream move” for Mr Collardi as he would be able to “increase his earnings three or four times”.
He has never hidden his own wealth — last year’s annual report revealed he had borrowed SFr12m from the bank to buy a new house. But at Pictet, partners receive a share of annual profit, which could substantially increase his take-home pay.
The move also showed “how cut-throat Swiss banking is becoming,” the colleague added.
For Mr Collardi, Pictet — for all the weight of its history — might offer him greater freedom as a businessman. Even as a chief executive, you were still an employee of the shareholders, he told the FT. A partnership was “the purest form of entrepreneurship”.
Additional reporting by Martin Arnold in Paris