It may not feature on his CV or official job description, but one of Eric Morin’s key skills is the ability to perform an astute balancing act. Doing that, though, has become second nature to him thanks to more than 30 years in finance and wealth management and a knack for managing change, planning adjustments, and taking a studied approach to every new initiative.
“Basically, my role is to ensure business growth while protecting the reputation of the bank and not taking excessive risk,” says the CEO of the Hong Kong branch of Union Bancaire Privée (UBP). “That comes down to striking the right balance between steps necessary for further development and focusing on sound governance and collective management.Overall, we have a very pragmatic and simple approach, which is also the way to ensure sustainable and profitable growth.”
Describing UBP as a mid-sized, family-owned “pure player” in wealth management, Morin explains that the vast majority of clients are business owners, entrepreneurs, high-net-worth individuals, and family offices. They are looking for holistic advice, asset protection, and well-diversified portfolios designed to give reliable, long-term returns.
“We can work on a pre-formatted mandate or something bespoke, with a certain percentage of fixed-income and equities or perhaps staying away from high-yield bonds,” Morin says. “We listen to each client’s objectives and what kind of risk appetite and tolerance to draw-downs they have. There is a very interactive relationship leading to any investment decisions.”
But while stability matters in running the business, there must also be room for change. One example was the acquisition and integration of Coutts International in 2016, which gave the opportunity to operate in Hong Kong and grow the business in Asia by adding platforms, systems and personnel.
Another is the parallel adjustment that comes with meeting the different requirements and preferences of an increasing number of mainland-based clients and second-generation business owners.
Typically, they are more international in outlook, are keener to consider investments in non-Asian markets, and are less “sentimental” in their choices and objectives. Such individuals tend to be more willing to delegate portfolio management to the bank under discretionary mandates. And they may want to hear about opportunities in hedge funds, alternative investments or ways to put money directly into projects on a private equity basis.
This might, for instance, see them putting a limited part of their portfolio into government offices in the US or student housing in Germany, possible options which usually carry higher risk, but also higher rates of return.
“These days, there are some very unique and targeted opportunities,” Morin says. “They are carefully analysed and validated by the bank before being presented to a client. In the private banking sector today, it’s difficult to be different, but we are trying to showcase that ability.”
Of part-Corsican heritage, Morin grew up in Paris and Toulouse, where his father worked in the aerospace industry and his mother had a job with the post office. As a teenager, he nurtured realistic dreams of becoming a professional tennis player, having competed on the centre court at Roland Garros in a junior tournament, but reluctantly accepted it would be tough to make the top.
Instead, he went to business school in Toulouse, graduating with an MSc in 1984, and then took a job selling computers. He assumed that, in an emerging sector, the role would
offer decent prospects and a certain amount of independence. In practice, though, he was working on commission basis with no guaranteed income, and spent many hours making cold calls on unconvinced notaries and doctors.
There were “some successes, some failures”. And, if nothing else, it was a good training ground in how to approach clients and discuss their needs. But two years was enough.
“I remember my father scolded me and said I was wasting my time,” he says. “By then, I’d also had enough ‘pain’, driving from morning to night and meeting people who didn’t want to buy my products.”
So, he changed tack and, with three attractive offers, opted to join leading French bank BNP, where he stayed for the next 25 years.
“I liked the style of the guy who hired me, who was dressed like a cowboy. Compared with other choices, the bank seemed more informal and friendly.”
Starting on the retail side in a branch in Bordeaux, Morin soon moved to Paris for assignments in internal audit and general banking. Then, with his wife’s full agreement, he began to ask about international postings.
The first came with a move from Versailles to New Delhi, where he did three years as branch manager for corporate banking. Next was Bahrain and, after the takeover of Paribas in 2000, there was an opening to run private banking for Middle East clients from a base in Geneva.
A structural reorganisation saw Morin appointed head of emerging markets, including Latin America and Asia and then, in 2007, he was off to Singapore to lead the marketing team for Southeast Asia.
“Looking back, I’ve had a succession of fantastic experiences in different countries,” he says. “That’s why my general advice to young people is to be geographically mobile and open-minded and to find the right sector. I’m happy to have worked in the same industry for such a long time.”
However, keen to focus on the wealth management side and work more closely with clients, he moved to Bank J. Safra Sarasin in 2012 as chief executive of their Singapore operations and, three years later, to UBP.
Strategic priorities now include developing the markets in Taiwan and China and building a business which is sustainable, progressive and profitable in the long term.
“The main reason I love this business is that we come across very interesting people with a story to tell. My job, though, is to make sure our private bankers are the most productive and the highest performing. That is how clients are judging their banks.”
(Photo: Gary Mak)