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Head of Citi's trust & wealth planning business for the Americas, Elena Mortemore says The Bahamas jurisdiction is critical to company's plans

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
June 26, 2018
June 26, 2018
Catherine Morris

A love of languages, people and history led Elena Mortemore to her current role as Citi Private Bank’s managing director and head of trust and wealth planning business for the Americas. Overseeing Trust business strategy and execution for more than 20 countries including the US, Canada, Mexico and Brazil and responsibile for generating nearly $60 million in revenue, Mortemore says the most rewarding aspects of her job are experiencing different cultures and meeting the needs of her very varied client base.

“People have always been interesting to me and this is a relationship business,” she says. “The exciting thing about Citi’s Bahamas trust centre is that we have clients from all over the world, across every region–Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Canada. That has given me exposure to different cultures and different approaches to estate and succession planning. It is a really exciting and stimulating environment. Every day there is something new.”

A bilingual background
Banking was very far from Mortemore’s thoughts when, at 17 years old, she decided to study history and Spanish literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Born in The Bahamas to a Bahamian-Spanish mother and a Bahamian-English father, Mortemore wanted to put her bilingual skills to good use and went on to study both English law and Spanish law at the University of Kent and the University of Madrid, respectively.

“It was challenging but it was great to have that experience of different countries,“ she says. “Little did I know that this would be the industry I would be working in today, but it has proved very useful to have had that deep understanding and exposure to the different legal systems.”

Armed with an LLB with Honours, Mortemore returned home to join Nassau law firm Harry B Sands & Company, where she got a good grounding in all kinds of legal matters from conveyancing to tort. From there, she was enticed into private banking after growing restless and eager for the next challenge. “When you get into law, into a specialized area, it becomes quite a small world. Having travelled for my education, I really liked going to different places and having different interactions,” she says. “Through some of the work we did with the law firm I got exposed to the banks and the opportunities there.”

In 2001, Mortemore joined Santander Bank & Trust as a legal counsel. Her language skills soon caught the attention of those on the trust side of the business and she was recruited to work more closely with that department. It was a good move for Mortemore, whose affinity for people made her a natural fit. “I liked the interaction with the clients and being able to work on something that could be quite troubling for them but, at the end of the day when you succeeded, gave them a lot of peace of mind.”

After three years at Santander, Mortemore was approached by Citi, which offered her the post of head of new business. Mortemore has now been with Citi for over a decade and has seen her role continually evolve, providing many career highlights. “The year I was made managing director, I was the only person [at Citi] in the region that was named managing director. The feedback I got from people all around the globe was overwhelming. It was a ‘wow’ moment. One of the other things I’m really proud of, as a Bahamian, was becoming responsible for The Bahamas’ office. I wasn’t expecting it, so I was really thrilled. That was hugely motivating and exciting.” Mortemore headed up operations for Citi Trust’s Bahamas and Cayman entities.

Selling The Bahamas
From Citi Trust Bahamas’ office in the Albany Financial Centre, Mortemore oversees trust business in the US, Canada and 21 countries in Latin America. She is a member of the Citi Trust Global Leadership Team and Citi Private Bank’s North America and Latin America Leadership Teams.

She is also frequently travelling–meeting clients, attending conferences, generating new business and staying up to date on what’s happening at a local level. “It is very exciting because you see where you can find best practices and where you can leverage knowledge from one region to assist with things that might arise in another.”

Citi recorded revenues of $18.2bn in the third quarter of 2017, has around 200 million customer accounts and does business in more than 160 countries and jurisdictions. Being the first trust centre established outside the US, The Bahamas has always been a key player in the global bank’s growth strategy. “The Bahamas is critically important [for Citi]. In terms of our trust and wealth planning business, it is our largest centre globally,” says Mortemore. “We’re very proud of the heritage that we have and of the experience we’ve developed over the years. We have staff that have been with us for more than three decades. That is an unparalleled differentiator from our competition. There are not many who can say they have that kind of experience and knowledge base.”

According to Mortemore, The Bahamas is not a hard sell for clients. “We have great trust legislation, and great infrastructure around that. We have a very talented legal profession, numerous accountants and professionals who have been around for decades. It is very exciting to be able to support the growth of business in The Bahamas and share these attributes with people from all over the globe.”

However, it is a competitive landscape and one that is constantly shifting as offshore centres such as The Bahamas come under scrutiny from regulators. Mortemore believes that The Bahamas can weather the storm by being consistent and focusing on what it does best. “At the end of the day, there are so many choices and so many capable people out there. You need to demonstrate that you are best in class and nimbly implementing requirements that have become the global standard. Those are things we have done well, and continue to do well. We need to maintain that focus.”

The single most prevalent challenge in the industry, she says, is the rapidly changing regulatory environment and the move to global transparency. “I take the optimistic view–challenges and change are about how you respond and adapt. You have to get comfortable with the new reality. You have to be very aware and stay up to date, stay close to what’s happening and keep your fingers on the pulse.”

Citi has a head start keeping up to date with the changes, according to Mortemore, thanks to its links all over the world and local expertise. “Citi is very well positioned because of our global footprint,” she says. “As those regulatory changes happen, we are already working with regulators in those jurisdictions. We have to adapt and figure out how to do business in that dynamic environment.”

Mortemore says that clients are at the heart of everything the bank does. “We want to make sure we are always doing things that are in our client’s best interest, that have economic value and which are systemically responsible. In everything we do, those are our three guiding principles. I think it’s very important for clients to feel comfortable speaking with an institution that has the know-how, the local knowledge and the experience to be able to support them with the decisions they have to make.”

Global clients
Making clients feel at ease is important in a business that relies so heavily on relationships. But this in itself can present a challenge given the changing nature of client demographics. Each generation has its own needs and priorities from pursuing philanthropy to providing for the next generation. Understanding people and empathizing with their situation is vital to building trust and confidence, according to Mortemore. “Everybody is different, so you want to stay relevant and make sure you are capturing the attention of the people you want to deal with. The next generation is something we always focus on and think about. People are living longer. You have to think about your next generation in terms of their decade–some might be in their 20s and 30s, but some might be in their 60s or 70s by the time they inherit wealth so their needs are different.”

Clients not only span the decades, they can also roam around the world. More and more families are becoming multinational and Mortemore sees many Latin American clients who are sending their children to school in the US or marrying, studying or working abroad. “It is really important in the banking and trust industry to be able to provide services for the global needs of the families that we work with. What is becoming more and more evident is that families are not linked to just one jurisdiction.

The Bahamas provides trust services for the entire globe; we can link up with our colleagues in Asia or in Europe to provide support and solutions that make sense for clients, based on where they live and where they do business.”

The Bahamas has long been eager to target Latin American clients in particular, capitalizing on historical ties and geographic proximity. LatAm’s high-net-worth individuals are collectively worth $7.4 trillion, according to a 2016 Capgemini World Wealth Report, making it a lucrative market for Bahamian practitioners. “Historically, Latin American families always worked with The Bahamas,” says Mortemore. “It was only when there were fiscal changes in legislation that had a global impact that they looked for alternative solutions. With the move to global transparency a shift has happened. It gives Latin American families more options, so I think it becomes about providing best-in-class service.”

For Mortemore, being the best means being efficient, responsive, knowledgeable and relevant. “We also have to think about the competitive landscape: what are our competitors doing that is better than what we do? What do they not do as well? We have to evaluate continuously and always strive to be the best in everything we do in the financial services industry. Ultimately, that is what will always be chosen by clients. They will go to those who can provide what they require, when they require it.”

Developing talent
The industry is only as good as its professionals, but Mortemore believes The Bahamas has nothing to worry about in this respect. She is bullish on the future of the sector and says it will be buoyed by the many young people who are being proactive in developing their skills. “We are very fortunate as a country in terms of the talent pool that we have. Every year we have a new influx of students who have equipped themselves with the skills they need. What I would like to see is this talent stretch themselves, reach out for opportunities and take advantage of the fact that we have global banks in the jurisdiction that can give them experience in another country, out of their comfort zone. Then they can come back home and help take the industry to new heights.”

Mortemore is a firm believer in taking those professional risks, with the right support. She once received three pieces of invaluable advice that left a lasting impression: find a mentor to offer support; have an advocate willing to speak for you at a senior level; and listen to feedback. “You can never get enough feedback. It is important to have a confidante who will give you the good, the bad and the ugly. It is really all about evaluating where you think your skill set will take you, addressing your development areas, seeking out the right support and making your career what you want it to be.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing what I’m doing today. I thought I’d be a legal counsel. It’s only because someone said ‘we think you might be good at this.’ I could have said no but it is really important to take those leaps of faith.”

According to Mortemore, Citi provides an environment where it is possible to take those leaps, and is just as focused on its employee’s personal development as their business acumen. She says: “Citi has spent a lot of time and effort on culture, on ensuring that we approach what we do with positive intent and hold ourselves accountable. That creates a culture of team work and responsibility of which I’m really proud to be a part.”

Work ahead
Married to James Briard, also a lawyer working within the financial industry in The Bahamas, with a 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, and an eight-year-old son, Thomas, Mortemore’s primary motivation is her family. “They are why I do what I do. They are my inspiration and my relaxation.”

In her downtime she enjoys time with her family, reading together, swimming and playing tennis, but her vision for the sector is never far from her thoughts. Mortemore wants to make sure The Bahamas plays an integral role in Citi’s worldwide business for many years to come, saying: “It has been a continuous evolution and we have seen continuous growth in business here. We see this jurisdiction as critically and strategically important, not only for our trust business or our local corporate bank, but also our broader global banking business. We focus on tried and tested solutions, not only for the client, but also for the bank, because we want to be doing this long-term and we want to make sure we can support our clients over generations.”

As The Bahamas moves to implement the Common Reporting Standard and fall in line with global tax regulation, the business model for financial services is changing. Mortemore is undaunted, saying Citi is ready to roll with the changes. “We will adapt to changing regulation requirements and comply with what needs to be done. We will continue to support clients with solutions that have integrity. As these rules start to be implemented and tweaks are made, we will be ready to adapt to those tweaks. We are here for the long term.”

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