Saturday, October 21, 2023

FT - Boris Collardi: ‘I don’t personify the problems in Swiss banking!’

Lunch with the FT Life & Arts 

The former Pictet partner on ‘dirty money’, his childhood letter to Enzo Ferrari — and what he plans next


I spot Boris Collardi beaming handsomely, one arm outstretched, on the terrace of du Creux de Genthod. He is framed by a scene of unnervingly cinematic allure: gingham tablecloths catch the breeze, and motor launches and sailboats bob on Le Léman, the peaks of the Mont Blanc massif in the distance.

Collardi — one of the best-known figures in Swiss banking, and perhaps one of the best-connected men in finance — booked two restaurants for lunch, both a few miles outside the city of his birth, Geneva, and a few metres from where he now lives. Since the September weather is so fine, here we are at the lakeside.
Two years ago, aged 47, his glittering career looked like it was unspooling as, amid damning regulatory criticism and questions about his ambition and scruples, he appeared to crash out of banking altogether, from his golden perch at Geneva’s Pictet & Cie. He’d been made chief executive of Switzerland’s third largest private bank, Julius Baer, at just 34. 
For admirers, Collardi was a restless showman who seemed to be everywhere all at once: an arm around Leonardo DiCaprio in St Tropez one day; a champagne flute at the Hong Kong jockey club with some local billionaires the next. And, for a time, it seemed as if no job in global banking, let alone in Switzerland, was beyond him.
For critics, though, he represented all that was most reckless about Swiss banking, driven post-financial crisis to hoover up as much filthy lucre as it could from around the world — of which, thanks to quantitative easing, there was a superabundance — using charm and style to paper over the loss of its promise of total secrecy. 
“I don’t personify the problems [in Swiss banking]!” Collardi protests later during our lunch together. Regardless, it is a timely moment to consider them. It is, after all, just six months since the near-catastrophic collapse of Credit Suisse. “It feels very much like the Swiss brand is on the defensive,” he says. 
But before all that, we get chatting about wine. 
“I have become an advocate for Swiss wines,” Collardi tells me, enjoining me to choose a glass as we sit down — but insisting we take something local. 
He has purchased a small domaine, Bec d’Or, not so far from where we are. (The name, “golden beak”, seems most apt.) The climate and elevation are remarkably similar to Burgundy, Collardi says, “so we can plant the same cépages [varieties]”.
Although I am happy to take his recommendation, Collardi insists we try a couple of different whites before choosing. The waiter fetches us two locals: a Chardonnay and a Muscat. We both plump for the Chardonnay, which is crisp and lightly oaked, not unlike a good Pouilly-Fuissé. 
Two simple feuille de chêne lettuce salads soon arrive, dressed in a classic vinaigrette. 
His mid-life retirement, I say, seems to suit him. Collardi is still a charismatic figure, but somehow shorn of his edge over our lunch. He tells me about a recent 70th birthday party he attended on a private yacht. He knew most people there, but for the first time he could speak to them as Boris Collardi, rather than Boris Collardi, the banker. “It removes a barrier when you meet another person and they know you’re not going to ask them for their money.”
As well as his vineyard, Collardi has, in 24 months, struck out in a range of new directions.
He has invested in a luxury health clinic, The Longevity Suite, and Ares Design, the Modena-based supercar manufacturer. He has become a patron and director of US Lecce, the Pugliese football team who have, coincident with Collardi’s arrival, been promoted into Italy’s top league, Serie A. 
And then there is his involvement in EFG International. 
Having long been friends with the billionaire Latsis family, he bought a 3.6 per cent stake in the Swiss bank from them in April last year (they retain 45 per cent) and took a seat on its board. Which, of course, has set many tongues wagging. Maybe Collardi’s days as one of the biggest rainmakers in private banking are not over yet? 

Spearing crisp leaves of salad, we seem to have strayed into tougher conversational terrain. 
Collardi’s career at the top began in tragedy — an issue he has never discussed publicly before. 
On December 3 2008, Alex Widmer, Julius Baer’s chief executive and Collardi’s mentor, killed himself. Collardi, nearly 20 years his junior, was his executor and had to sort out the affairs of his three children. 
“If you’d said to me, think of the most crazy scenario of what could happen to Alex, I don’t think I would ever have said this was a person who could take his [own] life. It was beyond the understanding of anybody,” says Collardi, slowly turning the wine glass in front of him by its stem. 
It was, Collardi reminds me, still the height of the global banking crisis when the tragedy happened. “You could feel on some days that it was a bit of an end-of-the-world sort of time,” he says. One evening, just days before Widmer died, Collardi invited his boss over to his house to cook together and relax. 
“He said to me, ‘Oh God, we have this bank to run, and I have this construction project here and this project there and it’s all too much for me.’ And I said to him, ‘I’ll take over this and that at the bank, and just tell me where I can help.’” He pauses. “You feel like you have not been able to get through to the person. Like you have not been able to give a hand to that person when they needed it. 
“And also, you . . . you get a bit pissed off to be honest. Because you say, ‘Why choose this ultimate measure, which is so irreversible, when there’s 50 other things we could have done?’” 
Baer’s share price tanked as, amid the febrile market environment, investors began to think that the bank might be hiding huge problems. 
“Contrary to what people may think, I didn’t just go forward and say to the board [of Julius Baer], ‘I’m the designated successor’,” says Collardi. It was Raymond Baer, the bank’s chair (and scion of its founding family) who called him a few weeks later, at the end of the year, and told him he should put his name in the hat to be the bank’s next chief executive. 
“I went in seriously. I prepared . . . But I genuinely never thought I would get the job. It’s a Zürich establishment bank. I’m an outsider. I’m too young. I’ve never been a front office manager in my entire life.”
He was already planning to quit — he’d bought a guide to Unesco World Heritage Sites that he wanted to visit on gardening leave.
“They called and they said, ‘Look, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that the selection process is over. The bad news is you’re not going to be able to go travelling.’” 
Our main courses arrive. We have opted for the restaurant’s speciality: a dozen fillets of Léman perch each, cooked meunière.
The plate is heaped with french fries. “I hope you’re not on a diet,” says Collardi. Absolutely not, I assure him. Shall we have more wine, I suggest? 


Restaurant du Creux de Genthod
Route du Creux-de-Genthod 29, Genthod, Geneva, Switzerland
Salad x2 (complimentary) 
Filets de perches du Léman ‘tradition’ meunière x2 SFr102
Coupe Dänemark x2 SFr22 
Château d’Auvernier Chardonnay x4 SFr30 
Henniez mineral water x2 SFr12.60
Double espresso SFr7.90
Earl Grey SFr4.10 
Total (inc service) SFr200
The fillets are beautifully delicate, firm and slightly crisp. They also come with a fantastically punchy sauce tartare with a lick of dill and tarragon. 
It was Collardi’s father who suggested he go into banking, pointing to his son’s love of numbers and detail and his way with people. 
At 19, Collardi got his first job as an apprentice at Credit Suisse. “I thought, I’ll work hard and maybe, by the time I’m 40, I could become a branch manager in Nyon [where he grew up]. That was probably my vision of what I could achieve,” says Collardi. But as he expanded his horizons, he says, “My ambition of what I could do developed.” 
It began with a backpacking trip to Asia. On his way back home, via Singapore, he met up with a former boss in Geneva who had relocated there. He suggested Collardi come to work for him. 
“Asia seemed like this huge adventure. There’s this incredible Italian writer called Emilio Salgari that wrote this book I loved as a kid called The Pirates of Malaysia, with a hero called Sandokan . . . so when I thought about living there, I couldn’t stop,” Collardi says. “Very early it made me realise, like looking at a map of the world, that Europe was not at its centre any more.” 
His experience in Asia turbocharged his career. When he moved back, he got to know Widmer, then head of Credit Suisse’s private bank. And when Widmer moved to Julius Baer, it was Collardi he thought of as the young dynamo he could bring with him to look after the details of his grand new plans. 

In 2021, Finma, Switzerland’s ordinarily quiescent market regulator, issued a damning regulatory judgment against Julius Baer. It covered the years 2009 to 2018, a period entirely coincident with Collardi’s time as chief executive. 
The bank, Finma said, “fell significantly short in combating money laundering”. Finma had focused on just two cases: dirty Venezuelan oil money stashed at the bank and millions in bribes paid to corrupt officials of Fifa, the governing body of world football, who had also found Baer to be a haven for their loot. 
It wrote a personal reprimand to Collardi — although concluded that punitive action against him was unwarranted.
“I find the image of saying ‘Oh, Boris was a business builder but he cut corners’ not to be extremely fair, because there were issues before me, there were issues during my time, and there were issues after me,” Collardi says when I ask about his reputation.
“There is no magic formula for this in [private] banking,” he continues. “Did we create our own set of issues? Absolutely, yes . . . we had a few bankers who were crooks and a few clients that were crooks. Was it systematic? No. 
“I’m not trying to exonerate myself. I was the chief executive. The buck stopped with me . . . So I’ve certainly learnt something, but I’ve also moved on.”
When Collardi started as chief executive, Julius Baer was managing the assets of the super-rich worth SFr159bn. When he left, it was managing SFr388bn. In 2008, the bank had 619 “relationship managers” to look after its wealthy clients’ needs. In 2017, that number had ballooned to 1,396. 
The consensus among almost all of the bankers I quizzed ahead of my lunch with Collardi was that Baer simply would not be one of the strongest and fastest-growing banks in Switzerland had it not been for his time at the top. 
“When you are made the chief executive of a listed company and you’re that young, you have to prove yourself every single day,” Collardi says. “I put all my energy into it.” 
I tell him that former colleagues of his told me he would, without batting an eyelid, hop on a jet to meet clients around the world for even the most minor of problems. “That’s not a myth,” he laughs. “I used to go to São Paulo for lunch.” He would travel for 300 or so days of any given year, he says. 
There was a downside. “I think if you’re reserved, if you’re discreet, if you’re calmer, I think it serves you well in many aspects of your life. I think to be too visible, to be too ambitious, is never a good sign,” he says, somewhat wistfully. 
This is a far cry from the Collardi who would drive his Ferrari into work. He laughs. Buying his Ferrari — which he did in his twenties — wasn’t about status or money, he says. When he was 10, he wrote a letter to Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari wrote back to him. And ever since he had wanted to drive one. He still has the letter. 
“The last car I bought, just to put things in perspective, was a Mercedes V-Class, to put all the kids and the dog in it.” 
Our main course gone, Collardi asks if we can see the dessert menu. Uninspired by the selection, he asks the waiter if the kitchen can make us two coupes Dänemark — the Swiss version of a dame blanche
In 2017, Collardi suddenly left Baer for Pictet, to become one of the bank’s seven partners. It was a move that surprised everyone. Pictet may be Switzerland’s most prestigious bank, but it is also one of its most conservative, where decision-making happens in secret and by consensus. For Pictet, Collardi offered an irresistible route into Asia, thanks to his contacts there. And for Collardi, Pictet offered one of the biggest pay cheques in Switzerland. 
It was not to last. In August 2021, the six other partners told their newest member he had to go. Collardi is reluctant to be drawn on the detail. It was a bad cultural fit, he says. 

The coupes Dänemark are huge. But beneath the peaks of whipped cream, which I spoon aside, is some excellent hazelnut ice cream. The sauce is the real thing too. 
I remark that few things seem to anger commenters on the FT’s website more than Swiss bankers. Why does he think his profession is so reviled, I ask? Old stereotypes take a while to die, he answers, adding that, as everyone with an ounce of experience knows, all the actual dirty money “has gone to Dubai”. 
Switzerland is, nevertheless, in an uncomfortable position, Collardi says. 
Bern has matched all of the EU’s sanctions against Russia, yet holds itself out as neutral. Asian clients of Swiss banks in particular, he says, are now wondering whether that neutrality actually means anything at all. “People are surprised. Even shocked . . . The people I talk to in Asia are all asking, ‘OK, so can we now still trust Switzerland?’”
Defeated by ice cream, I take a double espresso, and Collardi an Earl Grey tea. 
The idea that Collardi’s exit from Pictet represents any form of early retirement is, it strikes me, most unlikely. I ask about EFG. Is something strategic in the offing? Do the Latsis want to sell? Will he use the bank as some kind of means to a spectacular comeback?
“I’ve had the chance to be the chief executive of a bank for more than 10 years. What can I possibly do that is going to be better than that?” He pauses. “I should already be very satisfied with that.”
It sounds almost as if he is trying to convince himself. 
We put our napkins on the table and stand up to leave — with a short detour to the lakeshore, where Collardi gamely offers to take some photos of visiting tourists for them on their phones.
“You may recall this very famous Chinese saying that a thousand-mile journey starts with a single step,” he tells me before we say our goodbyes. “I’ve taken my single step!”
Sam Jones is the FT’s Austria and Switzerland correspondent and acting Berlin correspondent
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