Keepers of Great Fortunes Target Gulf

10/24/2012 9:00 am EST


British bank Coutts plans to offer a different kind of wealth management and asset allocation to the region's high net worth individuals, writes Frank Kane of The National.

There is nothing remotely downmarket, or even middle-market, about Coutts, the British bank that has traditionally advised the monarchs of the United Kingdom on their financial affairs.

Even when the bank is going on something of a global marketing drive, as it is under its current chief executive, Rory Tapner, it still sets the bar forbiddingly high for ordinary mortals.

"If you have £10 million [$15.97 million] to invest and want to know how, we will give you broad investment advice," he says. He does not mean "if you only have £9.5m, we don't want to know you", but that level gives some idea of the kind of person who banks with Coutts: the already wealthy.

Whether the wealth is inherited or what Tapner calls "operating wealth" (created by an entrepreneur, executive, entertainer, or sportsman in his or her own lifetime), it is all the same for Coutts.

"We are the custodians of great fortunes from the past or being made today. This region lacks a house to look after those kinds of assets. The target is to build a more local business," he declares.

The Middle East, including the capital-rich GCC states, figures high on Tapner's plans for Coutts. Not all parts of the world were so lucky. The strategic plan he put in place on getting the top job at the bank in 2010 involved slimming down Coutts's global network from 177 countries to about 80 over a 12-month period.

It also involved the implementation of a technology initiative called Avaloq, which pulls together the credit, cash, and investment management arms of the bank; and a branding facelift aimed at removing any uncertainties caused by the bank's ownership.

Since 2000, Coutts has been owned by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). The bank was at the epicenter of the British version of the global financial crisis in 2008, and was taken over by the UK government.

"There was some confusion about the brand. I remember at a meeting in Hong Kong where the client received six different business cards from Coutts people. But this is about promoting Coutts, rather than dropping RBS," says Tapner.

He knows all about change in the financial industry. He was a leading actor of the great wave of takeovers, mergers and flotations in London in the final two decades of the last century, which saw the city transformed into a modern financial center and the wholesale privatization of British industry.

As a leading investment banker, Tapner was involved in some of the biggest corporate action of the times, and he thought he had done his bit. He was in semi-retirement when Coutts came knocking.

"I knew the bank reasonably well as a customer, but looked it over to see whether it could be done differently. Was it too conservative and traditional? It should be a heritage business, rather than simply traditional," he says, comparing it to other global British brands, such as Aston Martin and Burberry.

That "heritage" tag is part of the bank's attraction in the Arabian Gulf, but Tapner is hoping to offer a rather different service to the region's high net worth individuals.

"Here, it's more wealth management than banking, and the old asset allocation classes are changing. Even ten years ago, it was all about whether to go into equities or bonds, but now there are a lot of other options, like precious metals, private equity, hedge funds.

"What will the next new asset class be? I'm rather thinking of things like energy bonds and carbon credits."

Property lending is further down on Coutts' priority list. "I don't want to increase our lending in real estate investment. We do quite a lot of it already. But clients should have a good weighting towards real estate, and we can certainly look at that as part of a broader portfolio."

He sees Coutts' role as increasingly to act as a preserver of wealth. "Historically, we've tended to be conservative. We're probably on the verge of a pretty high inflation rate around the world, with quantitative easing and other stimuli. In that environment, some will want more risky assets. But we are never going to advise an old aristocratic family, for example, to bet the farm on any one investment."

In the end, he says, it is the asset allocation model that is important, rather than simple stock picking: "It's an advisory role as much as giving lessons on practical investment techniques," he says.

The move from investment banking to private banking and wealth management has given him some perspective on the global financial services industry.

"Investment banking created an environment of enormous liquidity in the glorious period between 1999 and 2008. Then it went wrong. I hope we've learned the lessons. Investment banking is still huge, and it has to scale back, but without removing liquidity and impacting economic growth," he says.

"We're back in the savings cycle, with a need for capital to be invested in industry. That's what banking is all about."

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