Updated Friday, November 21, 2014 as of 3:37 PM ET

Julius Baer Asia Quest Demands High Energy From Dynamo Collardi

(Bloomberg) -- When Julius Baer Group Ltd. was looking for a new leader in 2009, Boris Collardi wasn’t exactly a shoo-in. Five years on, Switzerland’s private banking protege still has a lot to prove.

In an industry dominated by executives in their 50s and 60s, Collardi was 34 when he became chief executive officer of the country’s third-largest wealth manager. He vaulted to the top on the back of two stints in Singapore and promotions at Credit Suisse Group AG -- valuable experience for a company wooing wealthy people in emerging markets.

“Just to be a Swiss bank isn’t enough anymore,” said Collardi, who said he visits Hong Kong and Singapore every six weeks and regards Singapore as his second home after Zurich. “Now you need to bring local competence.”

Collardi, 39, has used his experience of living and working in Asia to advance the transformation of Julius Baer from a bank focused on western Europe to a network of businesses spanning Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The CEO, who earned $6.7 million in 2013, will be judged on whether Julius Baer can compete with top international banks in the world’s fastest-growing markets.

Deposits in the two biggest offshore centers for affluent Asians -- Singapore and Hong Kong -- account for almost one quarter of the 264 billion Swiss francs ($295 billion) under management at Julius Baer, Switzerland’s biggest wealth manager after UBS AG and Credit Suisse. Under Collardi, the bank has also opened a representative office in Shanghai.

“When I started in this business 80 percent of Asian clients used to come to Europe and have a Swiss account,” Collardi said in a telephone interview. “That breed is like Jurassic Park. It’s disappearing. Now the new ones are all entrepreneurs. They all want to have their money in Asia where there are better returns.”

MERRILL PURCHASE

Collardi plunged into the top job at Julius Baer, established in Zurich in 1890, at a time of upheaval in the Swiss banking industry. Much of Europe was in recession, and the Swiss government had bailed out UBS the year before. France, the U.K., the U.S. and Germany had embarked on an international regulatory effort to contain the use of offshore banks as tax shelters.

Since then, total managed assets have increased 75 percent, boosted by the acquisition in 2012 of Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch wealth units outside the U.S. Those units encompass about 20 countries, with almost half the assets in Singapore and Hong Kong. The bank has said incorporating these disparate franchises is a challenge that won’t yield a profit before 2015. Analysts at Kepler Cheuvreux and Mediobanca SpA have questioned how quickly the bank can turn around the Merrill Lynch assets that made a pretax loss in 2011.

‘HEATED DISCUSSIONS’

Agreeing on Collardi wasn’t easy, recalled Raymond Baer, who made the final decision as chairman of his family’s bank, before he stepped aside in 2012. Julius Baer needed someone who could persuade shareholders to back a bold expansion in emerging markets, which were producing a growing share of the world’s wealth and millionaires.

The competition included UBS and Credit Suisse, global heavyweights in the business. Whoever got the position would also have to reckon with locals like Singapore’s DBS Group Holdings Ltd. and United Overseas Bank Ltd.

“We decided, after probably the most heated discussions I’ve probably ever had, to go for a young CEO,” Baer, 55, said at a meeting of the British-Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Geneva in May last year. “This is project management, integration, M&A. We wanted someone with the energy level only a young person can have. We wanted a cosmopolitan person.”

CREDIT SUISSE

Collardi looks the part. He dresses in smart suits, speaks fluent German, French, English and Italian and skis in St. Moritz. His route to the top was swift and full of experience in frontier markets. The son of Swiss and Italian parents, he grew up in Nyon, a castle-topped town near Geneva, and opted out of a plan to study economics at a university after his father, a sales director at a technology company, showed him a newspaper ad for a trainee program in private banking at Credit Suisse in Geneva.

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