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Pictet builds on its Bahamas legacy
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Pictet builds on its Bahamas legacy

After 40 years in Nassau, the Swiss private bank starts the next chapter with new chief Alberto Valenzuela at the helm

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
February 16, 2019
February 16, 2019
Catherine Morris

When he was younger, Pictet Bahamas chief executive officer Alberto Valenzuela wanted to be a golf pro. His calling though was in a different role. “I am the caddy of my client’s wealth,” he says.

The veteran banker, a Swiss, French and Mexican national, has more than 30 years’ experience in finance with some of the biggest banks in the business and is now bringing his expertise to Pictet’s Bahamas’ subsidiary. Head of the LatAm wealth management market, Valenzuela is hoping to grow the bank’s presence in that region also from its Nassau hub, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Newly appointed to the role of CEO of Pictet Bank & Trust in Nassau, Valenzuela is keen to preserve and protect the Pictet Bahamas tradition. “We are here for the long-term. The whole history of Pictet is a demonstration of long-term commitment. Now we want to continue that legacy going forward.”

Globe-trotting banker
Originally from Mexico, Valenzuela moved to France as a child. He won a golf scholarship to study at UCLA where he graduated with a BA in Economics. Returning to Paris, Valenzuela attended the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration and the École Supérieure de Commerce where he gained a Masters of Management. “I was always intrigued by banking,” he says. “There is so much information in a bank. It is a good place to learn. It is a very challenging environment intellectually.”

His sights set on finance, Valenzuela joined Société Générale (SocGen) where he stayed for 19 years. The French bank kept him busy, sending him to New York for a six-year stint in investment and corporate banking and to South America, where he spent four years as country head for Mexico. In 2003, Valenzuela moved to Geneva to oversee restructuring of SocGen’s operations in Switzerland.

In 2012, he began his career with Pictet, a partnership since its creation in 1805, joining the group as regional head for Latin America and becoming an equity partner four years later. Part of what attracted Valenzuela to Pictet was its unique ownership structure, which he says is an important asset in a competitive field.

“Pictet is independent and privately owned. The company has absolutely no debt and no leverage. We don’t owe anything to anybody so we are free- thinkers and have no pressure from the market on results. Our results derive from providing our clients with valuable long-term investment experience.”

The well-travelled banker was already familiar with The Bahamas when he relocated to Nassau in spring this year. “I love it here,” he says. “I was on the board of the bank so I had been continuously coming to The Bahamas for many years. I was looking for this change. It was good timing in terms of where my life is today.”

Bahamian hub
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Pictet’s presence in The Bahamas. In that time, the office has grown from three staff members serving a handful of local high-net-worth clients to 72 staff providing services to clients throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The Bahamas bank works closely with Pictet’s Geneva headquarters to develop business and is an important part of the Swiss group’s global network.

“Pictet has a very good franchise in The Bahamas,” says Valenzuela. “We have incredible staff who are very loyal. I am amazed at our employees’ work ethics. A very good corporate culture exists here. I think we are fairly well- known for what we do, which is wealth management. Our main focus is helping our clients dissect the investment world, which is very complex.”

Valenzuela took over from outgoing managing director Grégoire Pictet in May 2018, who himself took over from Yves Lourdin [pictured]. Having remained at the helm of Pictet Nassau for 37 years, Lourdin is credited by Valenzuela with “building the bank from scratch.” Valenzuela wants to continue delivering on the bank’s two-pronged mission of building up a Caribbean client base, targeting The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda in particular, as well as growing the LatAm market.

The Bahamas is in a prime location to develop business on these important fronts, according to Valenzuela. “The Bahamas offers a good platform and good opportunities for the future. It has gone through difficult times but is now overcoming them. The regulatory framework is very good today, but it needs to continue to progress. The government has to continue making sure the reputation is pristine and of the highest standard.”

The LatAm opportunity
Global high-net-worth individual (HNWI) wealth grew 10.6 per cent last year to surpass $70 trillion for the first time, according to Capgemini’s 2018 World Wealth Report. Latin America accounted for $8.7 trillion of that total and the region is on a growth trajectory, with its HNWI population expanding by 7.3 per cent last year.

With business booming in the region, it has long been a target of financial services providers. Swiss banks have found themselves jostling for market share with their US counterparts. According to Valenzuela, a good name and a sterling reputation can deliver that vital edge. “We of course respect US banks. Rather than trying to fight them, we try to distinguish ourselves from them. We have certain features that are very attractive, but which not many US banks have and we work with our strengths. Our strengths are proven by our track record; our independence enables us to focus on the client’s long- term interests; we have longstanding international investment experience; we have a low risk exposure and tolerance. Our partnership culture makes us sensitive to the consequences of our decisions. Lastly, we have a strong brand.”

Valenzuela says that from a political and economic point of view, Latin America will remain very volatile. “People will continue placing assets outside their country to have a safety net. We can help them managing their wealth beyond borders and bring our expertise in managing global portfolios and global asset allocation. We understand how their wealth can be best transmitted, preserved and grown over generations. The market today is based on expertise and we have that expertise. That is our edge.”

The Bahamas Financial Services Board has been active in Latin America for many years, hosting conferences, attending trade shows and spreading the word about the jurisdiction’s offerings. Valenzuela says this has helped showcase The Bahamas’ brand, but more could be done.

“The brand [in Latin America] is quite good. When you are putting your financial assets in another country you want them to be extremely secure, so The Bahamas has to re- establish its credit rating. This country has a lot to offer. It is incredibly attractive, but today’s wealth moves quickly and The Bahamas has to stay at the front edge of regulation and attractiveness.”

Valenzuela would also like to see more awareness of Latin America’s diversity, and says it is crucial that Bahamian stakeholders take the time to travel to the area and become more familiar with its culture and language, rather than viewing the three major centres of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico as one large, homogeneous market. “Each country in Latin America is very, very different and they are huge. People say ‘I cover Latin America’ but you can hardly ever cover it; it’s a massive continent. Not many people know the area because they don’t travel there enough.”

Valenzuela, who speaks French, English and Spanish, adds: “It’s not easy to find experienced bankers that are fluent in Spanish. And it is not just the language; you need people who understand the culture.”

Changing times
One of the biggest changes Valenzuela has noted over his three-decade career is the regulatory landscape, with increased compliance regulations worldwide and the introduction of automatic exchange of information.

Pictet has moved with the times, says Valenzuela, and continues to thrive in this new environment. “We have always been at the forefront of making sure we are in compliance with new regulations on a global basis. We are extremely diligent about anti-money laundering and risk. Protecting the brand and our reputation, which also protects our clients and our colleagues, is very important for us, as it is the most important intangible asset we have. Pictet has that in its DNA and in its culture.”

The regulatory goalposts may be constantly shifting, but another disruptive trend on the horizon is financial technology. Fintech has exploded in recent years as innovative technologies have emerged to meet consumer demand for convenience, accessibility and efficiency.

Pictet is led by a culture of service, emphasizing the understanding of its clients’ needs, says Valenzuela, and is primed and ready to jump on the Fintech wave.

“Everything comes from the client,” he says. “We don’t push them, but we make sure that as the client becomes more digital we remain at the forefront. Our systems and applications are state of the art. And our number one goal is to protect our client’s financial assets.”

Pictet has also been investing heavily in artificial intelligence in recent years, hoping to use the technology to accumulate and process data on a large scale for clients’ benefits, such as market forecasts. “There is substantial investment going on in that direction,” adds Valenzuela.

Work-life balance
Technology isn’t just revolutionizing the way people invest, it is also transforming how bankers work. “We are so much more connected now. Nine to five doesn’t exist,” says Valenzuela. “People work all the time. If you are passionate, it is just a part of your life.”

His advice to those entering the sector is simple: “Be curious and be passionate.” He’d like to see more of a focus on education to drive young Bahamians into the industry and adds: “A lot of young people are perhaps too much focused on money and the financial industry is seen as an avenue to get that. Don’t be money-driven; be client-driven. If you are client-driven and have real expertise, you will be recognized. Working at Pictet is a lifestyle.”

For the Pictet Bahamas head, work involves a lot of meetings and a lot of travel. He flies to Europe at least once a month and is frequently in Latin America. It’s a busy schedule, but one that suits him. “It goes with the trade. I don’t believe in disassociating work life from personal life, not if you want to grow and perform. It’s all related. As long as you find it interesting, you are driven and you like the competition, that’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. That’s what drives you.”

Valenzuela is also motivated by the people around him. He sees Pictet’s Bahamian operations as a team effort and says one of his top priorities is to develop further the strong corporate culture he found upon his arrival in Nassau.

“I have always worked with good bosses. I have grown with the banks that I’ve worked with. I have been managing people all the time. Managing complex wealth requires a lot of expertise from many fields– legal, tax, investment.

I learn every day from my colleagues. I may play a different role, but I am still just one of the 72 employees here. I like flat structures and dynamic teams. I just want to develop the team further to new levels of expertise.”

Valenzuela may take his work with him wherever he goes, but says he is rarely stressed by the demands on his time. “If you don’t enjoy it and you’re not learning, that’s where the stress comes in. I think it’s fun.” When he really needs to clear his head, however, Valenzuela likes to exercise and, in a throwback to his golf days, is always happy to hit the greens.

[ Since this article was written, former Pictet Bahamas managing director, Yves Lourdin sadly passed away. The Bahamas Investor sends its condolences to his family and colleagues. ]

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