Is Pictet’s Experiment With the Future Over?

Reputation is everything in private banking, and never more so than in the hallowed Geneva halls of Pictet & Cie SA. Of all Swiss financial institutions, it is probably the most scrupulous about its long-standing image. Yet with barely any ceremony, Boris Collardi — who has been a partner only since 2018 — has exited stage left. An abrupt halt to the 216-year old bank’s attempts to modernize comes with it.

It is less surprising that the flashy and colorful Collardi left under a cloud than the fact he was hired in the first place. He had arrived with questions about money laundering from his previous stint as chief executive officer at Julius Baer, resolved earlier this year when he received a reprimand from the Swiss regulator FINMA. But his tenure as co-head of the wealth management division is just as much about a culture clash between Pictet’s attachment to the past and its attempts to keep abreast of the 21st century.

Old-fashioned institutions often drag themselves into the present with a clunky bang. But Collardi was a startling experiment. The mercurial outsider was brought in — by long-time Pictet partner Remy Best — to oversee the bank’s big push into Asia, itself a break with its traditional European customer base. Collardi was a sharp alteration from the house style: brasher and much younger than most partners (many of whom are still members of the founding Pictet family), a Catholic among Calvinists.

He also had a reputation as a wheeler-dealer willing to go with his gut rather than check every last risk factor. He hired more than 100 bankers and pushed into new investment arenas. That further changed the atmosphere at the bank, likely rankling the old guard. Many of the newcomers are likely to leave as a result of Collardi’s departure.

The Geneva-based bank is a pillar of Swiss society and is famously secretive. Still, there is a pervading sense of an organization in flux. Will it retreat from other business lines that Collardi inaugurated? Burgeoning Asian wealth is the most sought-after by private wealth managers globally. But the game is fast becoming overcrowded. But sticking to domestic clients could be perceived to be an admission of failure and a lack of ambition. Hardly a prescription for the future. Or for growth.

The firm also has a lot of unfinished work: Pictet is the last of the major private banks in Switzerland yet to resolve its outstanding issues with the U.S. tax authorities.

Experiments do fail. Smart institutions swiftly draw a line through them and move on. But Pictet took the gamble on Collardi for a reason. The need for change hasn't gone away with him. The bank will close ranks and act as if all is fine. But the outside world is watching to see if more Pictet rainmakers begin to peel away too.

Going forward, Collardi’s co-head of wealth management will assume responsibility for the division entirely. That his surname is Pictet may be more than symbolic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Marcus Ashworth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European markets. He spent three decades in the banking industry, most recently as chief markets strategist at Haitong Securities in London.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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