x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Banker with an eye on the future

Profile: Boris Collard, the 39-year-old chief executive of Julius Baer, perhaps holds an unfair advantage over the crusty septuagenarians that one traditionally associates with Zurich or Geneva financial institutions.

Boris F J Collardi, the chief executive of Julius Baer, says the region's large family groups will need sophisticated financial advice. Sammy Dallal / The National
Boris F J Collardi, the chief executive of Julius Baer, says the region's large family groups will need sophisticated financial advice. Sammy Dallal / The National

If there is one thing that makes Boris Collardi seem weary, it is fielding questions about his age.

Swiss banking is a tough industry, requiring extraordinary physical stamina and the mental acuity to deal with the demanding nature of the world's wealthiest.

But the 39-year-old chief executive of Julius Baer, who has held the position for four years, perhaps holds an unfair advantage over the crusty septuagenarians that one traditionally associates with Zurich or Geneva financial institutions.

The Swiss Italian seems impossibly fresh-faced at the end of a four-day tour of the Arabian Gulf at the tail end of a trip that included Brazil. He will soon jet off to Japan.

Perhaps it is for that reason the answers about his ascent to the top sound a little rehearsed. After all, how many times can he talk about what ambitions he still has after becoming the chief executive of Switzerland's biggest stand-alone private bank?

"When you do my job and every day you have to put your own conviction and energy, you're responsible for an organisation. It's not something you can do very lightly," Mr Collardi says. "I cannot imagine myself anywhere else."

He is every metre the enigmatic Swiss banker - discreet, precise, profusely apologetic for running late as he navigated the innards of the Emirates Palace.

And he never breaks from addressing his guest as if the person's concerns are the only thing on his mind. At only one point does he interrupt the conversation to take a call that he says he cannot miss. His answer in German - "I'm in an interview - call me back, Hamdan," adds a ripple of intrigue. A trusted lieutenant? The scion of a merchant family? A sheikh? He offers no clues.

Mr Collardi has had a busy year at the top.

In February, Julius Baer closed the acquisition of the international wealth-management division of Merrill Lynch outside of the United States and Japan, in a deal that increased its assets under management to more than 200 billion Swiss francs (Dh785.71bn), added eight offices worldwide, and 2,200 staff, as well as a host of new clients to screen.

Mr Collardi is a frequent visitor to the UAE, where the bank employs 50 staff, and from where Julius Baer is now considering an entry to Saudi Arabia.

It was the first bank to receive a licence to operate in the Dubai International Financial Centre. "It was a leap of faith at that time, but we did it," Mr Collardi says.

The firm is now making another jump. Unlike many wealth management firms that have changed gears to focus on the growing sophistication of family offices and their need for asset management, Julius Baer is instead concentrating on the heads of merchant families and other ultra-wealthy individuals.

This strategy has it swimming against a tide of banks including Pictet, Citibank and Saxo Bank.

Julius Baer's bet is that the region's large family groups will need sophisticated financial advice to detangle their private wealth from their corporate affairs.

Managing that transition correctly will mean more clients over successive generations. "There will be a need for succession planning, especially as families grow and more family members that could potentially be involved in the business," he says.

Mr Collardi talks with excitement about the prospects for some of the newest markets to open up in South East Asia, such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

"Everything needs to be done … In Vietnam they're just starting to have their first billionaires," he says. "Two years [ago] nobody was talking about Myanmar except for violations of human rights. Now they're opening up to international markets and opening hotels," he says.

Mr Collardi would certainly be among few bankers predicting Myanmar as the next growth market for private banking, but he is sanguine about the amount of time that may take. "That's a long shot. Myanmar - is it today? Is it tomorrow? No, but is it in the next five years? Sure," he says.

Mr Collardi's fondness for Asia is in part a reason for his meteoric ascent through the ranks of Credit Suisse, where he spent 13 years.

Having the "intellectual flexibility" to break with the conventional wisdom has paid off for him, he says. Mr Collardi headed to Singapore in the mid-1990s when his colleagues were much more interested in New York, for example.

"It was the unknown. Some people like it, some people don't like it. But Singapore changed my entire life," he says. "There were no structures. Everything had to be done and created. It wasn't an institutionalised job where you have a job description. It was about creating everything on your own."

And when he came back, he was in high demand as one of the few Swiss bankers with a good knowledge of Asia - the fastest-growing market for wealth management in the world.

The unexpected death in 2008 of Julius Baer's previous chief executive, Alex Widmer catapulted Mr Collardi into the top spot.

The appointment of Mr Collardi - who is more than a decade younger than the heads of rivals UBS or Credit Suisse - brought the first of a new generation of Swiss banking chiefs, perhaps more ready to contemplate casting off the received wisdom of the industry.

That includes rethinking how Switzerland can prosper as a financial centre without its long-standing bank secrecy laws.

"If I look at the regulatory changes that are affecting Switzerland, they're a reaction to the things happening around us, but they support a mega-trend - that high-net-worth individuals these days do not mind any more paying taxes or declaring their assets," Mr Collardi says. "This has really changed over the last 15-20 years."

Swiss banking secrecy laws - which emerged as a reaction to populist banker-bashing in France during the Great Depression but that were used by Jewish refugees during the Second World War - may no longer be such an asset.

Still, even as bank secrecy laws are eroded, Mr Collardi hardly suggests that a kowtowing to European officials is in order.

"Switzerland has a past, and there needs to be a solution for this past," he says. "We're not part of Europe. We have our own sovereignty, and there needs to be respect for Swiss standards."

How Switzerland deals with the erosion of its secrecy laws would be a "painful process", likely to continue for another two to three years, Mr Collardi says.

But what advantage does Switzerland have over London or Frankfurt without its bank secrecy laws?

"The standards of Switzerland have not been developed to arbitrage what happened in Europe," he says. The Alpine state "is not a single-trick pony" and offers many advantages as a wealth-management hub, not the least of which is a society "based on the principle of trust" and a sophisticated investment industry.

"None of the competition is sleeping," he says. "They've been weakened - but let's be open here, Luxembourg used to be a centre, London used to be a centre. Switzerland maybe in absolute terms has lost a bit of shine, but in relative terms it hasn't, because the others aren't doing well."

But that does not change the need for Switzerland to urgently come up with a new raison d'être, he says.

"In as much as in the past we could rely on the past, we need to build a future," he says. "That future is something where everyone in Switzerland in financial services needs to work very hard."