Hailing from Switzerland, he is fluent in six languages, had an academic stint in Japan, and defied convention by swiftly climbing the ranks in private banking after a successful 16-year career at an American consulting firm. In the first of a two-part interview series, Victor Aerni revealed his more personal side to Asian Private Banker.
Aerni, the new Asia CEO of Pictet Wealth Management (Pictet WM) and equity partner at the group, was previously the zone head of Pictet WM for German-speaking Switzerland since 2009. Having moved to Singapore to assume his role in April, he is all set to take on his top-level position and lead Pictet towards its next phase of growth in Asia.
Reflecting on his earlier days, Aerni credits his ability to speak multiple languages to his upbringing in Switzerland.
“The languages is a result of the fact that I was born and raised in Switzerland until 19. My mother is from Spain and my father is a Swiss, so that gave me already two languages. And then in Switzerland, you can learn a lot of languages of course,” he said. Aerni can speak Spanish, German, English, French, Italian and Japanese.
“My mother being quite international in her background – because she was actually born in Morocco, and that’s where my father met my mother – and said to her children “guys when you graduate from high school, go out. Switzerland is a small place.”
Aerni has a degree in International Business and Economics from Sophia University, Tokyo, where he lived for four years. He chose to pursue his degree in Asia, particularly Japan, because during the end of the 80s Japan was booming, and his mother’s encouragement to explore beyond home.
“My mother being quite international in her background – because she was actually born in Morocco, and that’s where my father met my mother – and said to her children ‘guys when you graduate from high school, go out. Switzerland is a small place’. So, my brother went to the US and I went to Japan because I wanted to learn about Asia.”
During that period, the Japanese were sending their people to the US and Europe for education, so Aerni decided to follow a similar path. Upon graduation, he had opportunities to work for Japanese multinationals, but felt the country’s long-term employment system, where employees often commit their whole life to work for a single firm, would result in a slow learning experience.
“Whereas I was eager to learn and apply what I had learned, so I felt that a Western company would be more ideal. And that’s why I joined Boston Consulting Group, which is a management strategy consulting firm,” he explained.
The BCG chapter
Aerni was at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for 16 years, where he was promoted to partner in 2000 at the age of 31. His management consulting activities covered banking in Switzerland as well as the global private banking and wealth management businesses.
“At BCG, I was always based in Zurich. The first eight years I was covering many different industries, but the second eight years, I was focusing more on financial services. I was in charge of the wealth management practice. I was involved in projects in Switzerland, in many European countries, the US, Latin America, and Asia – except in Africa.”
Aerni appreciated the international experience he gained while at BCG. It taught him to adapt quickly and approach challenges with a strong sense of structure. Another crucial experience he gained was working in teams and understanding its benefits, which ultimately transformed him into an advocate for teamwork.
“When I took over, Zurich was not the biggest market for us because we are rooted in Geneva, which is only three hours by train, so we never put a lot of focus on Zurich. But once we started to put focus, we grew tremendously.”
“It’s also one of my mantras here at Pictet. I don’t like one-person shows,” he said, adding that one of the motivations to join Pictet was his involvement in the BCG Global Wealth Report, which does benchmarking of 120 banks and different banking models.
“I really liked the Pictet model….[because it] is privately held and independent. We don’t depend on any one single shareholder or bondholder who influences us. The fact that we are a partnership, by default we are more team-oriented. If I draw a parallel to BCG, BCG is also privately held and is a partnership.”
The year 2009 was the start of Aerni’s career in private banking. He became the wealth management head for Pictet’s Swiss German market but was also responsible for the Zurich office where he also covered other European countries, plus had a team covering Asia.
“I did that role for 14 years,” he said. “When I took over, Zurich was not the biggest market for us because we are rooted in Geneva, which is only three hours by train, so we never put a lot of focus on Zurich. But once we started to put focus, we grew tremendously.”
Assets under management for Pictet’s Swiss German market have grown more than fivefold from what they had 14 years ago, Aerni shared, without disclosing actual figures. He attributes this growth to the team’s approach of concentrating efforts on serving larger clients and their close collaboration with influential players in the market, such as trust companies, and top lawyers who recommended Pictet.
“[I also took a] team approach by mixing seniors and juniors, and relationship management people with the investment people. So we just applied this model and systematically did that, and we grew tremendously,” Aerni continued.
“Our business model resonates a lot with clients because we are privately held. Entrepreneurs own their company and they like to speak to somebody who is also an entrepreneur and owns a firm,” he concluded.
In the second of this two-part interview series, Aerni discusses his plans for the Asia business and shares his perspective on the wealth management scene in the region.