In November 2012, Pictet & Cie executives prepared the gala opening of the Swiss bank's Israeli branch. These were the early days of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, and for a moment, Tel Aviv was a city under missile attack. Rebuffing instructions from the Swiss Embassy, Pictet Wealth Management Israel manager Karen Schwok, went ahead with the event. "We opened under conditions of uncertainty, just when missiles began to fall here. All of the bank's eight partners and senior executives came to Israel for three days. We held meetings and events, and every time we all ran to the stairwell," she told "Globes" in an interview.
Schwok (33) began working as an analyst at 17, during her undergraduate studies in economics, and founded her own investment house at 27.
"Globes": Did Pictet's owners have hesitations?
"They bragged that they had served in the Swiss Army, and that they were not easily panicked. They were super focused on the target. One of the air raid alarms caught Jacques de Saussure, the senior partner, at a meeting. It was amusing to see him tell is interlocutor, 'I'll be happy to invite you to the protected space.' Even in such an Israeli reality, he maintained European etiquette."
Maybe Israel is an ideal place to invest in?
"Israel's growth rate is very interesting. As a global trend, contemporary growth engines aren’t necessarily in traditional Europe, but in emerging countries. Israel is in a completely different place from where it was 50 years ago. It is based on diversified business entrepreneurship, of which Israeli high tech is the best known. After Silicon Valley, it is the most interesting place in the world.
"Not only Israel's growth rates are impressive. The personalities, the dynamic and assertive Israeli character also strongly push forward. This isn't a characteristic of other countries and entrepreneurs in the world. A 2010 survey found that there were more than 8,500 Israeli families with more than $1 million in equity, which is not a few. There is a reason why so many foreign banks are coming to Israel."
Pictet was founded in Geneva in 1805, and is Switzerland's biggest private bank. It is Switzerland's third largest bank in terms of assets, after UBS AG (NYSE; SWX: UBS) and Credit Suisse Group AG (NYSE: CS; SWX: CSGN; XETRA: CSGZ). Pictet is owned by eight partners who are personally involved in customers' money; an interesting idea in view of what happens at Israel's banks. Pictet, which has had substantial growth in recent years, has opened branches in countries around the world, including Luxembourg, the Bahamas, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It also has 25 representatives offices around the world.
What is the difference between a bank branch and representative office?
"We allow relations with customers, business development, the provision of consultancy services, but we are not really a bank which keeps customers' assets, issues credit cards, and so forth."
So if there is no credit, there are no write-offs of debts?
"In contrast to local banks, which have both credit and investment activity, Pictet almost never extends credit. We could have developed this business, but the partners didn’t want to go there. When we manage more than $320 billion in assets, and when the partners are personally involved with the money, the most important thing is to minimize risk. How do we do this? We focus only on investment management with private and institutional customers, and we don’t have activity with balance sheet risk. We give credit to individuals on a case-by-case basis. You won't see us giving credit to conglomerates or tycoons."
So Nochi Dankner won't get credit?
"We don’t normally work with big companies like IDB Holding Corp. Ltd. (TASE:IDBH) or other big companies in the Israeli economy which have become insolvent or nearly so. Were Nochi to come, I'd probably tell him that my expertise is in investments, and more correctly that I'd create added value for him in this field. And if I had already decided to extend him credit, it would not be at terms which would be attractive for him."
Debt write-offs isn't in Pictet's lexicon?
"Absolutely not. We don’t take companies and try to sell or float them. We have no conflict of interest which exists at other places. During the 2007-08 crisis, we saw quite a few banks which had securitized companies in which they had some kind of interest in them. That is not in our lexicon, it isn't something that we ever wanted to do. Our business is off balance sheet.
"As a function of this, the risk for customers almost does not exist. During the crisis, we saw that while financial stability at some banks was undermined, we were in a different place. The value of assets of banks which until then had widespread balance sheet activity fell because they held many risky assets on their books and they had a liquidity problem. We were never in that spiral."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 4, 2013
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