WEALTH'S TECH TRAILBLAZERS TOWER OVER COMPETITION

Digital transformation has been a major trend in wealth management over recent years, though too many have merely paid it lip service. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has brutally exposed those private banks which had been lagging the leaders.

In addition to tackling ongoing digital challenges of replacing legacy systems, responding to changing regulation and meeting increasingly sophisticated client demand, the 40 private banks from across the globe which entered the PWM Wealth Tech Awards can now be measured by another metric. How their digital infrastructure responds to the unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic, dealing with volatile markets, remote advice and increased cyber-hacking, has proved an important benchmark for our judging panel, conscious of the crisis accelerating most existing digitalisation trends.

“What is clear is that those firms which have not really embraced a tech overhaul for the operating model are going to be exposed in 2020,” says long-standing wealth consultant and UK-based PWM awards judge Seb Dovey. “A badly enabled tech capability in wealth management is going to cause the clients concern and this will affect their decision to remain.”

Among big name firms to have impressed our judges during the evaluation process are Europeans BNP Paribas, BBVA, CaixaBank, Credit Suisse, HSBC and UBS; Citi and Merrill in North America; and DBS in Asia. Banks in developing countries are also making digital waves, including Turkey’s Akbank, Brazil’s BTG Pactual, Thailand’s Kasikornbank and China’s Industrial Bank.

Those banks which have performed well are not generally newcomers to the digital game, confirms Alois Pirker, head of research for Aite Group’s wealth management practice in Boston, US. Firms such as DBS, that launched and implemented data analytics several years ago, are emerging into a powerful position, as machine learning algorithms typically need eight months to a year to properly learn client characteristics. The opportunity in this data sphere will likely be the focus of the shifting digitalisation battleground for several years to come.

“Digital transformation has been a major industry trend for the last five plus years,” says Mr Pirker. “Leading firms have fine-tuned and leveraged their digital engagement platforms well before the crisis. But others have largely paid lip service to the trend; low adoption of their digital platforms led to a rude awakening at the onset of the pandemic.”

With these platforms now established as the major communication channel for private banks and customer experience moving centre stage, clients receiving underwhelming service could reconsider their rota of providers, suggests Mr Pirker.

Despite some vast, expensive and often ground-breaking technological innovations, the report card remains mixed, with some grandstand projects and basic upgrades failing spectacularly.

“Very few private banks have successfully upgraded their core platforms,” says Doug Fritz, founder of Silicon Valley-based tech consultancy F2 Strategy. “Many have used data architecture, data science and advanced analytics to work around the problem. Those that have tried to move and modernise have largely failed.”

Ambitious robo-advice projects have not delivered promised AuMs or client experience expectations, leaving the lion’s share of portfolios still custom-managed by private wealth advisers, adds Mr Fritz.

Knee-jerk reaction to crises such as Covid-19 has been more common than well thought-out long-term strategies. “Past core technology spend has clearly helped some firms, but much of the recent digital activity has been more tactical to respond short-term to Covid-19 challenges,” says Keith MacDonald, partner and wealth management head at Ernst & Young in London. 

‘Plug and play’ products in client communications and e-signatures for onboarding have fallen short of transformative expectations. “Banks should really be having a brave rethink of the operating model and application of tech,” says Mr Dovey. “But most are applying tech to automate a previously manual workflow. That is simply the first phase and only gets a business so far. What tech should be considered for is a completely new way of doing business.”

Many private banks simply build a thin digital layer, a “horseshoe” around existing traditional systems to enhance customer experience. “With the importance of time to market and limited budget, the focus is currently more on such a ‘horseshoe’ than on core systems replacement,” says Mario Bassi, a Sydney, Australia based wealth management adviser and former senior private banker.

Leadership has been an important factor for banks which have succeeded in remodelling digital architecture. Sometimes this has happened through force of personality and vision, as with Kabir Sethi, who has digitally transformed the private banking franchises of Merrill and Bank of America, despite many claiming this could not be done. At others like BNP Paribas and Citi, leaders have fostered a more inclusive culture through embedding innovation teams and practices in the process. Rewarding managers and employees for taking the digital plunge is also vital.

“To make truly transformative change, you need leaders who are prepared to challenge the status quo,” says Sharmil Patwa, founder of the Opus Una consultancy in London. “Compensation structures in larger organisations don’t recognise this.”

Most agree that some kind of ‘hybrid’ arrangement  – combining robo investment and mechanical data analysis with a more emotional, human approach – will emerge as the winning model. But the industry faces a huge challenge to find the optimal mix between these two key service elements.

“Older clients typically require more advice and planning and there is an opportunity for next-gen robo only,” says Mr Patwa. “But financial institutions that want to service a spectrum of customer segments and maximise ‘share of wallet’ will need a hybrid approach.”

There is a strong belief among some that in a “people business”, advice will always triumph over technology. If anything, Covid-19 has demonstrated the need for both approaches. “This is the time when human relationship managers have their day to show empathy, understanding, emotional support to clients in a way that no digital platform can do,” says April Rudin, CEO of the Rudin Group in New York. “In that way, digital has truly enabled advisers to get close to clients, without worrying about tedious tasks or communications which can be enabled easily by digital platforms. Covid-19 has proven the need for hybrid wealth management.”

Digital wealth management is now a mandatory part of the client experience, no longer a luxury, nice-to-have addition. “The alternative is to focus on clients which prefer traditional channels only,” says Urs Bolt, of Zurich based digital consultancy BoltNow. “But this is a high risk strategy which could lead to a literal ‘dead end’ because  this client segment will simply erode away.”

WINNERS

GLOBAL

UBS

The concept of “digital everything”, which the UBS Group has been investing in for several years, is being vocally championed by Iqbal Khan, the bank’s co-president of wealth management, who received an $8m payment for joining from rival Credit Suisse last year.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the bank moved to totally digital ‘townhall’ meetings, with investment and business experts in key jurisdictions joining each other on video links. UBS is an organisation where executives travelled regularly to meet colleagues and even cross-regional committee meetings required physical attendance.

The bank, fresh from updating its Client Advisor Workbench, has encouraged relationship managers to contact all clients more regularly through telephone and digital channels, especially since senior managers realised many multi-banked clients were not hearing from their other providers and that Covid-19 provided a huge opportunity for growth.

While Mr Khan is a big fan of the ‘hybrid’ model of wealth management, combining human and digital input, he understands regular portfolio reviews and asset shifts at the highest level are typically undertaken by advisers rather than machines. However, when markets are performing positively and there is more optimism, the bank relies more on digital tools, as was the case during 2019.

UBS has developed an armoury of digital devices for client use, but it is clear they are not all being deployed to maximum effect. One example is Cornerstone, a look-through tool allowing allowing digital rebalancing and stress testing of portfolios. Bank bosses are keen to improve take-up of this tool. They also stress the importance of capturing information at every touchpoint as vital for the business and for client engagement.


HSBC Private Banking

HSBC is one of few private banks to have been engaged in comprehensive digitalisation of its investment process, rather than just using tech tools for marketing and client interfacing.

Particular importance has been attached to granularity and quality of data on stocks and bonds. “We have put huge emphasis on our data framework as a key success factor to building a state of the art portfolio management technology,” says Anil Venuturupalli, chief operating officer at HSBC Global Private Banking.

Among portfolio management enhancements at the bank has been implementation of BlackRock’s institutional-quality Aladdin platform. With recent coronavirus-led market dislocations shining a more intensive light on the need for understanding portfolio risks, HSBC has deployed Aladdin’s stress-testing and scenario planning capabilities to increase portfolio resilience and take advantage of market sell-offs to make further investments.  

The HSBC Prism Advisory proposition has been devised not just for relationship managers, but also to “bring life” to portfolios for clients, helping them make informed investment decisions. 

“We use data to tailor the depth of conversation our clients want to have with us,” says Muriel Danis, global head of advisory at HSBC Global Private Banking.

Investment committees working closely with regional specialists to identify high quality, thematic ideas increasingly use digital channels and the Aladdin capability at the heart of the investment process. “We are able to translate these investment opportunities, market strategies, thematics and house views to implementable solutions for the right clients, into the right portfolios, at the right time,” says Ms Danis.


BNP Paribas Wealth Management

Collaborating with external fintechs, to encourage open innovation, is a key plank of the long-running digitalisation strategy at BNP Paribas Wealth Management.

“Banks that embrace this collaboration will be able to adapt faster, offer better products and services to their clients, improving their customer journey as well as gaining a competitive edge,” says Vincent Lecomte, CEO at BNP Paribas Wealth Management. 

The bank has built strong partnerships with fintechs including DreamQuark and Daon to accelerate the pace of development and enrichment of customer journeys. In 2017, the firm acquired a majority stake in Gambit, which offers one of the most advanced robo-advisory solutions. Gambit’s solutions have also been used to help launch myMandate, a fully customised portfolio management service.

Another digital tool, myImpact, has helped the bank to develop sustainable investments across all asset classes, allowing clients to identify their impact preferences and priorities, in line with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Previously, much of the technological focus of BNP Paribas Wealth Management has been on developing networks and apps bringing together different families to co-invest. Now there is an increased emphasis on using technology to manage portfolios.

“Portfolio management and advisory are definitely at the heart of our value proposition,” says Mr Lecomte. “We have been leveraging the digital channel during recent years to make this experience smoother and more personalised.”


Credit Suisse

Credit Suisse has been ahead of many competitors in implementing a solution to turning the routine collection of client data into an engagement opportunity. Its Applicable Offering Solution is designed to free up considerable time for relationship managers. The regtech solution was built together with external partner APIAX.

There is a belief at the heart of the bank in Zurich that successful digital innovation is based primarily on data collection, processes and application, to generate significant benefits for both clients and employees.

In Asia, the bank is particularly focused on its entrepreneurial client segment, typically requiring investment banking in addition to private client and portfolio management services. Connectivity with peers, allies, business collaborators and social entrepreneurs across the globe is key to this ambition and providing advice beyond investment on all aspects of entrepreneurship is highlighted in networks including the Young Investors Organisation and Family Ties. 

The challenge today is how to facilitate growth and improvement of these networks through digital channels. “We believe technology is a key strategic long-term driver and enabler of sustainable business growth,” says Werner Schlossmacher, managing director, APAC Platform Management at Credit Suisse. 

“We have a cohesive digital strategy with clients, relationship managers and the bank in mind. As the bank for entrepreneurs, we work with clients with complex financial needs. They look for wealth planning across generations, requiring integrated solutions across private and investment banking services that cover their professional as well as personal wealth needs. Technology and digitalisation play a key role in all of these services.”


Citi Private Bank

While many private banks have tried to confront huge challenges of regulatory complexity, changing client demand and clunky legacy systems, Citi has decided instead to focus on aspects the bank can control. The strategy has involved appointing innovation leaders to work alongside all senior managers, to introduce a more modern, tech-friendly culture. This has been easier at Citi than other more universal institutions, because the private banking target clientele is more narrow, focused on the top tier of the wealth pyramid. But this is not to underestimate the bank’s transformation achievement.

Citi’s team-based model allows clients to access experts, including investment advisers, trust, lending and wealth planning specialists. The teams are backed by a Global Investment Lab, providing technical expertise in portfolio construction, risk management and investment strategy.

During crises, Citi has highlighted evaluation of portfolios and sharing strategies that help protect and grow client assets. “We have noticed investors holding historically high cash balances as well as under representation of fast-growing themes, what we term ‘unstoppable trends’ such as fintech, cybersecurity and healthcare,” says Philip Watson, chief innovation officer at Citi Private Bank.  “Sharing tools that help them rapidly evaluate gaps and opportunities is critical.” 

Tools including Hawkeye and Outlook Watchlist are designed to improve outcomes through making clients more aware of their exposures. 

A key facet of Citi’s philosophy is combining external influences with internal expertise from venture capital and business advisory units. “In my role I have coined a phrase, ‘bringing the outside in,’ to refer to a mindset of openness and engagement which is a fundamental part of our work in innovation and curating what is interesting, relevant or exceptional,” says Mr Watson. This is particularly relevant in adapting data analysis and modelling techniques to private banking. 

“Data isn’t only about accessibility, it’s about the design, the visualisation and the integration into the business,” he says, adding that if banks are prepared to learn from other practitioners, “there are no limits to the scope of what we can do with data.”

ASIA & AUSTRALASIA

DBS Bank

Competition in Asian wealth management is heating up, with European, US, Chinese and regional players now all vying for a slice of the action and digital proficiency emerging as a key differentiator. “You cannot be a serious player if you are not in the digital space,” warns Sim S Lim, group head of consumer banking and wealth management at DBS Bank.

The Singaporean bank prides itself in having re-designed its iWealth mobile app, based on customer usage patterns and now plans to hyper-personalise the client experience, deploying data through “cognitive banking”. It has also introduced fully digital onboarding in Hong Kong, ahead of competitors.

DBS operates in a south-east Asian and Chinese milieu that skipped the desktop era, creating a market of emerging middle-income consumers who were mobile-first and unbanked. The bank has also had to keep up with a host of fintechs active in Asian transaction banking, all contributing to the mobile experience.

Recent developments combine both custom-built internal solutions and external partnerships with these fintechs, including one enabling an AI-based service to glean insights on customers’ financial behaviours and preferences. 

Competitors are undoubtedly now investing more significantly in AI and Big Data, areas where DBS has been the first mover for some time, but no longer has total dominance. “Going beyond automation and augmenting the experience through data, we can deliver cognitive banking to our customers by providing them with hyper-personalised insights and experiences, at scale,” says Mr Lim. “As our competitors catch up, we move forward again. We are in a relentless pursuit of excellence and improvement.


Kotak Wealth Management

Kotak Wealth Management’s clients can access their portfolios via digital platforms, which enables them to monitor their investments and generate different types of reports. Through the Kotak Smart Solutions app, they can view executed trades for all listed products, and also gain access to an e-Will platform to plan their succession. 

Customers can receive updates through the WhatsApp messaging platform, while an AI based chatbot, also available on the Kotak mobile app, offers a “personalised, contextual, human like and user-friendly phone banking experience”. 

Wealthy individuals in India are used to having a support staff to do most of their tasks, explains Oisharya Das, CEO of Kotak Wealth Management, Kotak Mahindra Bank. 

However, during the coronavirus crisis, clients have moved to do-it-yourself and digital services. The services particularly appreciated during the crisis have been paperless transactions, automated real-time gross settlement solutions, allowing for the instantaneous transfer of money and securities, and the ability to transfer funds on web portals and mobile apps. 

The Indian bank recently launched digital onboarding for new clients.

Under lockdown, wealth managers were enabled to access systems and portfolios from their homes via VPN and VDI technology, while regular digital communication kept clients up-to-date. But the confinement has also exposed areas for improvement, as some processes still required physical documentation, there was in increase in banking frauds, and bankers experienced connectivity and internet bandwidth issues at times. 

“The coronavirus pandemic has created a sense of urgency towards digital transformation. This is driven by both demand from clients, who are now inclined to do more things digitally, and by the business to ensure better client experience,” says Ms Das.


KASIKORNBANK PCL

The development of its private banking core system, Avaloq, around onboarding, transaction execution and portfolio monitoring, has enabled Kasikornbank to improve management and customisation of clients’ portfolios.

By automatically matching Kasikornbank house investment views to clients’ portfolios, the system allows the bank to have tighter control on private bankers and clients’ asset allocation. Advisers are allowed to fine-tune the investment proposal, while an alert

system prevents any transaction diverging from house views, unless they are authorised by the designated team.

The Thai bank has recently launched several digital communication services, which free private bankers from routine tasks such as daily market updates, so they can spend more time with clients.

Technology plays an important role in the development of investment products, mainly by supporting communication between parties. 

“Private bankers need to truly understand details and product features so that they can recommend them to our clients. Digital communication helps us connect with both partners and our staff faster and more effectively,” explains Jirawat Supornpaibul, private banking business group head at Kasikornbank. 

Video conferences are used extensively to connect with portfolio managers at Lombard Odier, with which the Thai bank has had a strategic partnership since late 2014, to meet the investment needs of its private clients.

Kasikornbank plans to develop a mobile app based on Avaloq, allowing clients to monitor funds, view the bank’s investment recommendations and execute orders. 

The bank’s philosophy is to implement the digital transition slowly, to reflect client needs. Private banking, especially in Thailand, still heavily relies on the human touch.

“We aim to offer a more digital service, yet we do not expect technology to replace the traditional service platform, but to help us leverage our capability,” says Mr Supornpaibul. 


Standard Chartered Bank

At the core of the digital offering at Standard Chartered Private Bank is the Connect suite of platforms for FX and equity derivatives, aimed at simplifying advisory and execution processes. Standard Chartered claims this “game changer” delivers “speed to market” for clients, cutting response times by 90 per cent, calculating live pricing from nine counterparties in less than two minutes and carrying out dealing across 80 currency pairs with execution for complex products.

“The result is we have enhanced quality of conversations that our private bankers have with clients,” says Alex Welch, global head of wealth products and sales at Standard Chartered Bank. “This frees up time to spend engaging with the client on our open architecture advisory proposition, rather than executing trades.”  

Through its impact on market volatility and liquidity, Covid-19 further necessitates more efficient market pricing, offered by platforms such as FXD Connect, born of collaboration with external partners, according to the bank. Instant messaging features and an in-chat capability within the SC Private Bank app have also enabled more regular communication with clients. Registrations for the app during Covid-19 are 2.5 times up on monthly registrations during the first quarter of 2020.

Another innovation is the SC Intelligent Insights (SCII) tool used by frontline teams of private bankers, to generate talking points generated by quant-based methodology. “The algorithm in the tool uses a combination of traditional stock selection metrics, such as quality, value and momentum, complemented by news and social media sentiment analysis, which drives short-term real-time price action,” says Mr Welch.


Taishin Bank

Through the use of big data and AI, Taishin Bank gathers historical and real-time data from a large number of internal and external data sources, to build the profile of each client. The goal is to understand preferences and potential needs of customers, and provide them with targeted services and solutions, explains Christy Shyy, head of segmentation division at Taishin International Bank.

The investment advisory platform ‘Robo King’ enables the Taiwanese bank to provide investment portfolios forecast, understand client investment preferences and monitor markets. 

The AI forecasting investment model tracks the client’s digital footprint and investment preferences through their online browsing, enabling the bank to customise product offering, thus enhancing the client’s probability to invest. 

“Competition in the financial sector has become primarily centred on technology innovation,” says Ms Shyy. “Private bankers must continually test the feasibility of novel technological solutions, such as Automated Machine Learning and Explainable AI.” 

Taishin collaborates with start-ups on business problems which have big data solutions, and leverages their technical strengths in artificial intelligence and machine learning “to develop viable business models, reduce operation costs, and enhance technological competitiveness,” she adds.

The use of big data and AI also helps Taishin detect changes in consumption behaviour, and improve customer service in all areas of life. In the early stage of the coronavirus epidemic, Taishin designed marketing activities focused on providing online shopping rebates, delivery discounts and other information services, to meet evolving client needs.


Industrial Bank Co. Ltd.

Industrial Bank has accelerated digital interaction through videoconferencing since the outbreak of Covid-19. The situation has spurred the bank to speed up ongoing transition from ‘offline’ to online wealth management. 

The bank has also actively connected with the ecosystem of Chinese big techs and fintechs. A data analysis laboratory has been established to process big data and leverage its use for precision marketing. “Digital marketing requires infrastructure,” says Xuxian Dai, general manager of Industrial Bank private banking. “When enterprises quickly need to meet the data needs of new business scenarios, it can transform the overall solutions.”

Data is being increasing deployed in portfolio management too. “Our bank relies on the data analysis laboratory to strongly support the incubation of a professional asset allocation system,” says Mr Dai. 

Currently, the bank is developing a variety of investment models based on customer information, risk preferences, life cycles and personalised capital needs. In this way it is offering an innovative combination of marketing and portfolio management disciplines for the benefit of clients. 

“The system can provide customers with scientific investment portfolio management and insurance protection planning, as well as after-sale tracking review and profit and loss adjustment suggestions based on market changes and customer needs changes,” adds Mr Dai.


ANZ Private Bank - New Zealand

In 2019, ANZ Private Bank launched Portfolio View, an online investment reporting tool for clients, available with both English and Chinese language options. It also equipped private bankers with access to a range of tools on large screen iPad Pros, enabling them to have more relevant, in-depth conversation with clients. 

The bank has also “significantly transformed” the way it communicates with clients, creating content that is more future-focused and engaging. For instance, it commissioned a series of ‘case study’ videos, filmed on-site, with representatives of the ‘c-suite’ New Zealand listed companies which clients are invested in. 

“We want our clients to understand our thinking about not only what has happened in the markets, but also what trends we are watching and what we believe may happen next. This is about enhancing the personalised service we offer our clients,” explains Craig Mulholland, managing director, Wealth & Private Bank, ANZ Bank New Zealand.

At a wider bank level, the institution has introduced digital assistant Jamie, a first in the country, to deal with client common banking queries. 

A strong business continuity plan enabled all private bank staff to swiftly start working from home, as soon as the lockdown was imposed in the country. Conference calls with senior investment managers to inform and reassure clients meant that only a small number changed their strategy or closed their portfolio during that time. 

Video conferencing enabled private bankers to connect visually with clients, and complete annual client reviews. In the future, more client meetings will take place via video, while client webinars will also increase, expects Mr Mulholland.

“The lockdown gave us the opportunity to accelerate our digital transformation. Both our private bankers and clients have been very receptive to the new technology, including clients who had previously not taken advantage of digital services, but have done so during the lockdown and are now really enjoying it.” 

AFRICA & MIDDLE EAST

Investec

With one-in-four Investec employees now technology specialists, the South African bank can claim a true dedication to digital transformation, concentrating on modernising technology, injecting a digital culture into the workplace and capturing opportunities through innovation.

Investec says its hybrid model, combining people and technology, is epitomised by a ‘high touch, high tech’ approach, allowing client contact with investment specialists and private bankers in person, online or through an app, to get consolidated views of local and international banking and investment accounts.

“We are better able to deliver on our customer-centric, personal promise because of our high tech capabilities,” says Lyndon Subroyen, global head of digital and technology at Investec.

The permanent, 24-hour availability of digital solutions creates a hyper-connectivity between institutions and clients not previously possible, he says. But the bank recognises adaptation to the digital world requires not only a technology solution but a culture shift from staff, clients and society. “Often the removal of friction in a process can be quite ground-breaking,” believes Mr Subroyen, drawing attention to a greater focus on cyber security protection, compared to traditional and analogue services.

Digitalisation also allows greater segmentation with specialised content directed at clients and potential clients under the age of 30, focusing on empowerment, careers and building a financial future.

“Clients across all generations are far more digitally savvy and have come to expect a personalised experience when engaging with any brand,” he says.


Liv. Bank

With the largest wealth transfer in history looming, engaging with younger generations, and understanding their needs, is a key priority for banks. 

This is what led Emirates NBD, three years ago, to launch Liv. Bank, the first digital banking proposition in the region targeting young adults. Built from the ground-up in a start-up environment by a team of millennials, the digital bank gives clients access to lifestyle opportunities while enabling them to better manage their finances. 

The Liv. mobile app allows customers to open their bank account instantly from their smartphones, through simply scanning in their Emirates ID card. 

With more than 40 per cent of Liv. accounts being created between 8pm and 8am, when most banks are closed, younger cohorts are starting to value their time more and hence live more, explains Jayash Patel, head of Liv. Bank.

“We built Liv.’s proposition around millennials’ view that money is primarily a means to gain experiences,” says Mr Patel. The app is continuously upgraded, based on lifestyle needs and wants of customers, with the bank partnering with several brands and start-ups across industry sectors, to offer clients a range of personalised lifestyle promotions.

One of the app’s popular feature is the goal savings account, which allows customers to use automated rules to save money towards personalised goals, one goal at a time for things on their wish list.

“We believe that banking should be accessible and affordable for everyone,” he explains.

Acquired at a fraction of average banking acquisitions costs, five out of six new customers are millennials. This proves that the bank’s digital and social media marketing strategy is attracting the intended target base, claims Mr Patel.

EUROPE & CEE

Nykredit Private Banking

Nykredit’s aim of becoming the “most personal hybrid private bank” in the Danish market has driven the institution to focus on developing solutions that can provide “valuable advice to clients at the exact moment they need it”, while improving cross-organisational collaboration and use of digital channels.

The benefits of digitalisation do not come from the number of digital solutions offered, but from the way they are used, states Lotte Månsson, director of Nykredit Private Banking Elite. Training and “upskilling” employees are key to create a digital culture, as is allowing employees “to show vulnerability and seek advice from colleagues in order to learn and grow”.

In 2019, the bank replaced its core content management system platform, enabling bankers to create a more bespoke client experience and engage proactively with clients. “The new platform has hugely affected private bankers in their everyday work and has had a positive impact on their productivity, but the process has been met with resistance along the way,” acknowledges Ms Månsson. The bank has also enhanced the range of services available to clients on the online banking platform.

Key lessons have been learned this year. “Digital transformation sometimes ends up being synonymous with the development of an app or a new digital platform, but the pandemic has shown us how small digital adjustments or improvements can make a world of difference,” she explains. “The coronavirus has taught us a lot about our processes of working with digitalisation and led us to see many more growth opportunities in our existing digital infrastructure. “

Social distancing has accelerated the use of webinars and calls and brought bankers even closer to clients. The continuous dialogue has brought down barriers, allowing the conversation to focus on issues that “really matter” to clients. 

Digitalisation enhances communication and improves work efficiency, but also brings threats, the biggest being the reduction of personal interaction. “Trust, comfort and the emotional relationship between client and private banker need to stay the centre of what we do, to make sure we meet our clients’ needs,” adds Ms Månsson. 


BNP Paribas Fortis

Contact with clients is up by 85 per cent during the coronavirus crisis at the private banking arm of BNP Paribas Fortis and video conferencing is being hailed by the bank as the new standard in the post-Covid-19 era.

The bank has also launched a series of digital events to inform clients about the economic outlook and publicise new product launches, such as the latest private equity fund.

In order to facilitate this digital transformation, the bank set up a series of client advisory councils, which meet two or three times a year in each private banking hub. The councils work closely in the co-creation of digital client solutions. The bank says its initiatives in the big data sphere have allowed client assets to increase by around 50 per cent during a three-year time span.

Although many specific innovations are launched in Belgium, best practices flow between various parts of the BNP Paribas banking group, allowing them to be instituted in different countries. Several innovations including PrivelegeConnect, myExperts and PaxFamilia have been devised within BNP Paribas Fortis and then taken up at group level for use in other countries.

“We can create positive leverage in two ways, simplifying the life of our private bankers on one hand and improving the client experience on the other,” says Stephane Vermeire, head of BNP Paribas Fortis Private Banking  


BPI Private

Banco BPI has been trying to balance the needs of both relationship managers and clients with the introduction of the latest portfolio management technology. Much emphasis has been placed on the presentation of information to clients. The bank ensures that the IT project teams who develop technology always have representatives from both the commercial department and the front office to ensure the needs of both are met.

According to Antonio Luna Vaz, director of BPI Private Banking in Lisbon, the biggest achievement of digital transformation is in finding new and more time and cost-efficient ways of providing traditional wealth management services.

“The big challenge for us is to be able to complement digital transformation with a physical presence,” says Mr Luna Vaz. “It will take some time – and maybe forever – to move to a wealth management service that is purely digital.”

The most important decision a wealth manager makes during the transformation process is the choice of external technology partner, he believes. BPI implemented the Temenos wealth solution for reporting, having worked with two previous partners in its Swiss business. “Once you sign a contract, it is too late to go back, so you have to adapt your expectations to what is possible. That is why it is important to get it right when you first choose the technology,” he says, adding that Temenos is “one of the best banking software firms, with a flexible approach.”

Training staff in how to use the systems and integrating digital requirements with traditional and emotional skills is also key to the bank’s launch of its Campus BPI e-learning platform.


Kleinwort Hambros

The Kleinwort Hambros investment committee meets regularly to determine best possible investment outcomes and the bank is now concentrating on clear communication of these investment ideas to clients through websites and LinkedIn during the Covid-19 crisis.

These communications provide insights into the bank’s investment thinking and attempt to anticipate market movements. Kleinwort also organises calls between the investment teams and groups of clients, who can put questions directly to portfolio managers and market experts.

The bank now plans to work on digitalisation of data points to better capture the client base. It already uses this information, along with the knowledge of relationship managers, to target communications to clients with a particular financial need. It is in the “early stages” of exploring applied AI to better identify such opportunities. AI, says the bank, will form a key part of future developments. 

Although the franchise was recently put up for sale by its French parent, bosses insist that the Kleinwort Hambros brand will continue to play an important part of Société Générale Private Banking’s strategy. “As a sign of its commitment, SGPB will be developing and strengthening its private banking position in its key markets and franchises – through its operations in France, the UK, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Monaco,” says a bank spokesperson.


BBVA Private Banking

Among the many initiatives promoted by Spanish bank BBVA to empower its relationship managers, the introduction of the digital signature, which allows clients to securely sign all documents and make portfolio transactions via digital channels, is particularly valued. Not only does it significantly improve the client experience, but it also simplifies private bankers’ work, reducing non-financial risks and allowing them to focus on advising clients, says Jorge Gordo, head of BBVA Private Banking in Spain.

Over the past two years, BBVA has been fine-tuning tools for private bankers to report, access client information and provide advice, with security and robustness a priority. This is one of the most relevant and strategic development areas at the bank, with a high budget attached to it. 

In collaboration with Salesforce and BBVA technology, in 2019 the private bank rolled out a new workspace for private bankers, offering advanced apps that can be accessed from all devices, with new capabilities related to client data, relationship management and sales activity.

“Thanks to the digital progress BBVA has made in recent years, we’ve been able to serve our clients normally during the coronavirus crisis, allowing RMs to manage their clients as if they were in the office,” states Mr Gordo. 

Private bankers have kept in touch with clients even more frequently through digital channels, including video and web calls, helping clients review investments and asset allocation, while also using traditional means of communication. 

Clients have been able to access and manage their portfolios online, with the My Investment platform enabling them to monitor all their assets in real time, in aggregate or individually. 

Although no relevant operational challenges have emerged, the lockdown has highlighted the need to revisit stringent protocols put in place to transfer money, and to be able to make secure transfers through digital or telephone channels.

BBVA is constantly exploring opportunities offered by AI and big data, to better understand client needs and customise proposals, communication and sales plans. 


CaixaBank

While Caixa continues to offer personal services from 53 private banking centres, staffed by 600 advisers, as part of its “hybrid” model, it reports high demand for digital tools during the Covid-19 crisis. These include The Wall communication service and a robo-advisory facility, which showed substantial growth during March and April.  “It allows us to easily explain portfolio movements and makes it easy to reach the client. It is simple, cost efficient and offers good returns,” says CaixaBank’s executive director for private banking, Victor Allende, describing benefits of the robo function.

Recently introduced Smart Allocation portfolios offer dynamic management combined with volatility control through a quantitative model identifying different market scenarios, in order to determine a portfolio’s risk levels.

The bank expects big data and artificial intelligence to play an increasing role in wealth management innovation, with sophisticated algorithms and modelling allowing greater service customisation, with predictive data coming into its own.

“We are moving from a model where you ask clients about their knowledge and risk appetite, to a model in which you infer what the answers will be, based on information you already have,” says Mr Allende.


UniCredit CEE Private Banking

Covering eight countries across Central and Eastern Europe, UniCredit CEE Private Banking is focused on improving client digital experience and empowering relationship managers through the comprehensive use of technology. 

A digital wealth management platform, Private Invest, enables clients to monitor portfolios, exchange secure messages with private bankers and receive personalised investment ideas. 

The CRM solution, Unique, offers private bankers a consolidated view of clients’ assets and their financial situation, enabling them to provide personalised advice. It includes portfolio analysis with client profiling, ongoing portfolio monitoring and automated rebalancing. Advanced suitability checks, daily portfolio checks and all-weather alerts ensure a prompt reaction to a range of market scenarios.

Leveraging on the UniCredit Group’s investment strategy and guidelines, the platform proved very useful during volatile markets caused by the pandemic, enabling RMs to assess client portfolios remotely, propose solutions and deliver suitable advice, says Daniela Croitoru, head of CEE Private Banking at UniCredit.

However, the lockdown imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic also exposed flaws in the service model. “One of the biggest deficiencies we were exposed to during the crisis was the missing channel for online execution of investments,” acknowledges Ms Croitoru. This functionality is currently being developed, but the bank has had to find “other ways” to meet client needs in recent months. 

Yet, both clients and private bankers have realised there is no need to meet in person to discuss what can be agreed over the phone or via video conference. Video collaboration functionalities featuring in the bank’s digital roadmap will enable bankers and clients to make business this way even more in the future. 

“The coronavirus crisis has brought permanent changes to people’s mindsets.  Many will be much more open to digital tools, remote banking and new innovations. All this will make our lives easier and more comfortable.” The crisis is also going to accelerate digitalisation, bringing innovations, apps and new ideas to real banking life, producing rapid changes that could take much longer under normal circumstances, she concludes. 


Akbank Private Banking

The development of an advanced mobile investment platform, combined with the launch of innovative investment solutions and further digitalisation of the investment sales process have greatly improved Akbank clients’ digital experience over the past year. 

Through Akbank mobile, clients can look into their portfolios, monitor performance, take investment decisions and invest in currencies, gold, stocks and bonds, as well as mutual funds. 

More importantly, they can approve investment transactions digitally, a service also available at the bank’s branches, while a new reporting format adhering to global standards has enhanced the view of their portfolio balance and performance.

In 2019, most investment account openings, advisory agreement approvals and initial advisory meetings with clients were made online. 

Relationship managers are all equipped with iPads and able to serve their clients remotely. This technology infrastructure was particularly helpful during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. 

“Relationship managers have been able to access client portfolios, connect clients with investment advisers via video platforms and execute transactions, thus providing uninterrupted service from home through their iPads,” explains Alp Keler, executive vice president, private banking and wealth management at Akbank. Video call platforms have been “extensively utilised” to understand and meet client needs, and give them timely feedback on their portfolios. 

The new signature-free tool enabling RMs to initiate transactions with clients, while clients can then complete the process on their mobile app, has been a “significant facilitator”.

During this time, the bank has enriched its online content and events offering to clients, while increasing resources available on RM’s iPads. 

Believing wealth extends to culture and values, the Turkish bank has launched a digital lifestyle platform, AJournal, with its blog and Instagram account, to keep clients abreast of the latest developments in art, technology, architecture and other topics.

 “Looking forward, we see digitalisation as an opportunity to improve client engagement and deliver a highly personalised, seamless and integrated customer service,” says Mr Keler. “But while digitalisation will accelerate, we cannot forget the importance of human touch when engaging with customers.”


Komercni banka, a.s.

The redesign of Komercni banka’s (KB) mobile banking application has delivered a more transparent and appealing design as well as new functionalities, which has accelerated client uptake of digital services for their routine banking operations, explains Petr Slaby, director of private banking at KB. 

But what has greatly accelerated client adoption of digital channels and remote services, particularly in relation to investments, has been the coronavirus pandemic. Wealthy individuals seeking to take advantage of market volatility are able to execute investment orders and manage their portfolio using digital signature.

To speed up its digital transformation and innovation programme, the Czech bank partners with third party fintechs or develops in-house start-ups, when a

specific solution is not available on the market. 

KB recently launched a real estate portal, which has become the second most popular in the domestic market. Working with third parties, through the app CompanyForYou, the bank offers entrepreneurs the possibility of establishing a new business within a few days, while business clients can access their firm’s performance overview through the Board app. 

A new start-up offering online life insurance, backed exclusively by KB, tracks healthy living habits of insured clients via its mobile app, giving discounts based on “gamification”.

“By developing partnerships with external service providers, KB seeks to enrich its service offering and provide customers with additional value and unique customer experience,” says Mr Slaby. In 2019, KB launched a new API portal, “opening the way to ‘banking without borders’, fintechs and start-ups”, he explains. 

“We like to choose relatively mature, while growing, fintechs, with whom we can not only ‘plug & play’ their solution, but develop joint business solutions in the coming years.”

KB was the first bank in the Czech Republic and one of the first in Europe to enable authorisation by facial identification in the Android version of its app.


Tatra Banka

Tatra banka’s financial advisory tool was developed mainly to fulfil MiFID II regulations, but has also greatly improved model portfolio construction and performance measurement, as well risk management and reporting. 

The tool offers clients a consolidated view of their portfolios, while the new mobile banking app has introduced digital signature, so that customers’ investment orders are automatically sent to the bank’s order-routing system.

“What clients appreciate most is the variability of views on their portfolio, portfolio management simulation and granularity of information,” explains Marek Neckár, head of private banking at Tatra banka, part of the Raiffeisen Group. Clients also value the “dynamic view” of portfolio and portfolio performance. 

Private bankers are able to access all the information about a client consolidated in one platform, including a dashboard that shows transactions, suitability and appropriateness tests, portfolio allocation and performance, advisory protocols and simulations. 

But the bank’s innovative culture may clash with those clients for whom “digitalisation is not their cup of tea”, warns Mr Neckár.

“It is important to find a balance between the requirements of professional experts in the field of portfolio management and the client´s requirements for user-friendly applications.” This is an area for improvement, says Mr Neckár, and the coronavirus crisis has accelerated this need. 

Portfolio stress testing, which was finalised late last year, shows how client portfolios are impacted by negative market trends or unexpected events, and has been very useful during the pandemic.

THE AMERICAS

Santander Private Banking

Santander is particularly proud of Spirit, its multi-device, multilingual, modular and integrated tool. This CRM and advisory tool, already in use in five of its geographies, allows bankers to “take the bank” with them, allowing them to have all relevant information at their fingertips.

More recently, in partnership with wealth technology company Masttro, Santander has introduced a wealth tool, geared toward the bank’s UHNW clients, which provides a complete portfolio view of all financial and real assets, across all custodians in different geographies and asset classes. First launched in Mexico in late 2019, it will be rolled out to other geographies soon. 

Technology has been “especially remarkable” during the pandemic, states James Dunne, former head of digital for the Santander wealth management and

insurance division and now head of Santander Wealth Management UK. “Our digital tools allowed us to remain in touch with our clients in the way they wish to engage with us, to be there when they need us most through our e-banking, online insight sessions, video conferencing, and by providing them with timely information and advice about their portfolios and market movements,” says Mr Dunne. 

The bank’s  ´human-led, tech-enabled´ model was really “put to the test” at the beginning of the Covid crisis, he adds. 

Through the bank’s client portal, launched in its international platforms, clients are able to review products held with the bank, chat to their bankers and respond to advisory ideas, as well as get market updates and Santander’s views. 

“As in many sectors, the pandemic has helped us to accelerate our digital transformation, as it has further boosted the use of tools clients had already available,” says Patricia Correa, head of digital for the Santander wealth management and insurance division. 

When launching new apps or features, music streaming services have set a benchmark when it comes to personalisation. “The more the user engages with their solution, the more tailored the experience becomes. In the context of banking, this would be game changing. To be presenting product updates, news and opportunities in an individualised way is a constant target,” states Ms Correa.


BTG Pactual

BTG’s enhanced version of its wealth management app allows clients to manage their portfolios, place orders and sign documents and contracts. But during the Covid-19-induced equity market volatility, it was the bank’s Home Broker platform that saw “exponential growth, in volume and number of trades,” explains Rogerio Pessoa, partner, head of wealth management, BTG Pactual. 

The app gives clients flexibility to transact, with no need of adviser or trading floor support, which is also a boon for advisers. 

The robo-adviser platform, introduced in 2019, has also been much appreciated by clients and relationship managers, as it allows the simulation and comparison of portfolios. Moreover, the bank’s broadcasting activity has increased significantly to keep clients up to date, with the bank’s YouTube digital channel reaching 250,000 subscribers. 

The pandemic has incentivised the use of digital platforms, tools and communication apps, and the number of virtual meetings is higher today than that of face-to-face meetings held in the past, reports Mr Pessoa.

While it might be assumed that digital channels appeal to a younger crowd, clients across all age groups use them regularly. “Regardless of age or any other criteria, we have a specialised team to help the more resistant ones in this transition from the analogue to the digital world,” he explains. “This makes an enormous difference, because people feel safe when someone is by their side, every step of the way.”

‘Digital ambassadors’ help promote digital culture within the bank, with regular updates showing platforms are becoming more and more robust, but digitalisation will never replace human contact, he adds.


Merrill Lynch Wealth Management

Merrill Lynch Wealth Management (MLWM) formed a Digital Specialist group in 2017, to enable advisers to use digital capabilities and remain abreast of rapid change across wealth platforms. 

A key plank of this change has been integrating capabilities already available at the bank into client and adviser platforms, one example being Erica, a virtual assistant within the BAC mobile app, featuring in the new Merrill financial adviser workstation.

While the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated digital adoption, the firm is keen to stress it was already experiencing strong growth in this sphere prior to the lockdown. Up to 80 per cent of clients are now using digital platforms.

Engagement is extending across digital capabilities, ranging from transactional functionality, such as mobile cheque deposits to “collaboration features”, such as secure messaging and electronic form signing. In May, almost 50 per cent of all cheques deposited were via digital channels, 10 per cent higher than in any previous month. The number of forms signed via e-signature was almost triple that of any month prior to 2020.

Big data and AI play an increasing role in MLWM’s strategy, giving advisers content and proactive insights, enabling them to have the right conversations with clients and prospects at the right time. Merrill’s AI-based content-sharing app, Socialize, has almost 7,000 advisers actively using the platform. 

Another flagship programme, Client Insights, automatically notifies advisers about relevant life events for clients across banking, lending and wealth relationships. For instance, a payment to an educational exam tuition company might indicate a client’s need for conversations about student banking or lending. 

“This approach allows advisers to recognise and act on potential client needs and offer relevant solutions,” says Kabir Sethi, head of digital wealth management, Merrill Lynch and Bank of America Private Bank.


RBC Wealth Management

While the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of using digital capabilities to maintain and cultivate client relationships, this aligns well with RBC’s strategy of building a “digitally-enabled relationship bank”. 

Providing advisers with technology and capabilities to meet clients’ evolving needs, stay connected with them while on the go, and enhance productivity was been a key focus at RBC Wealth Management well before the Covid-19, claims Jennifer Publicover, senior vice-president, products and strategy at the Canadian firm. 

The Adviser Virtual Assistant (AVA), a native iOS and Android app for phone and tablet, allows advisers to access portfolio details, view aggregated household balances and holdings, and consolidate household notes, tasks, emails and events. It also allows them to review and approve electronic Know Your Client documents. A growing percentage (60 per cent) of the bank’s 4,000 advisers across Canada and the US are now using the app, reporting very high levels of satisfaction.

In Canada, the bank continues to make enhancement to myGPS, a goals-based digital planning platform, which was optimised for iPad so relationship managers can use it “on the road”, and can now also be launched directly from within the AVA app. 

The Account Opening and Servicing tool has reduced the client onboarding process from 30 days to a few hours, while consolidating the five to 10 signatures required by clients per account, to a ‘one-click’ client digital signing experience. 

Branch managers and investment advisers in the Canadian wealth business benefit from Portfolio Insights (PI), launched in 2019, which enables them to offer “efficient and personalised delivery of investment advice”, claims Ms Publicover. 

“Through the recent pandemic crisis, PI has proven especially beneficial in providing timely and beneficial data to inform rebalancing decisions, in managing comprehensive fixed income portfolios, in understanding the impact of volatility on client portfolios, and for identifying different trends and risks in client portfolios and across books of business,” she says. Ms Publicover explains that during these turbulent times, clients need even more advice, assurance and help from advisers. 

Post-crisis, clients will become more digitally savvy, with increased comfort in engaging virtually with advisers. “Our digital efforts will continue to focus on making it simple and easy for clients and advisers to interact and access information, as well as enabling our advisers to deliver more personalised, timely and actionable insights to our clients,” adds Ms Publicover.

“In our data and information saturated times”, RBC will continue to be committed to invest in R&D in artificial intelligence and related technologies, exploring the ways AI can support wealth management, including natural language processing. 

Within this space, the Canadian bank has developed the AI system Nora, which is able to produce an in-depth profile of an individual, their assets and interests by processing unstructured natural language information from disparate public sources. Nora’s capability is equivalent to around 50 full-time market intelligence analysts,  and saves advisers 6.5 hours of preparation per client on average.

HIGHLY COMMENDED


Best private bank, use of technology, global
BBVA Private Bank

Best private bank, Big Data and AI, global
CaixaBank

Best private bank, digital customer experience, Asia
ICBC Private Banking

Best private bank, digitally empowering RMs, Asia
DBS Bank

Best private bank, digital customer experience, Europe
Société Générale Private Banking

METHODOLOGY

Now in their third year, the PWM Wealth Tech Awards recognise the prominent role of technology in private banking.

The PWM Wealth Tech Awards aim at gathering qualitative and quantitative information from private banking groups to be able to give a set of awards for excellence in the use of technology and digital communication.

Institutions are asked to highlight key achievements, changes or improvements in relation to how technology is transforming their business models and contributing to drive growth, support advisers, enhance brand and improve client experience.

A judging panel composed of leading industry professionals nominates the best private banks, regardless of size, in different categories.

As a growing number of private banks invest in their technology infrastructure, the awards programme is set to expand rapidly, with new categories being added and new winners being awarded.

JUDGES

Best digital leader, Kabir Sethi, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Many doubted such massive and complex firms as Merrill Lynch and Bank of America would be able to thrive in the fast moving digital arena but Kabir Sethi has overseen an impressive programme of modernisation

Kabir Sethi’s most recent role as head of digital wealth management since 2016 – and before that from 2014 as head of digital banking – has enabled him to progressively bring to life a vision of a completely digitalised wealth business at the inter-connected private banking complexes of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America.

“While the work is far from complete and, I am sure on his own admission it will never be complete, since it is constantly evolving, Kabir has brought together the different complex strands of a global financial institution into a digitalised framework,” says independent wealth consultant Seb Dovey, who has worked closely with the bank in the past.

Mr Sethi has kick-started construction of a broad ecosystem of partnerships across social media platforms and fintech firms. For example, there are 10,000 advisers now using the bank’s regulated LinkedIn platform and more than 5,000 using Sales Navigator, their social selling tool.

While a majority of adviser-facing and client platforms are internally constructed, the bank works with a host of fintech partners, including Yodleee, Factset and LiveOak. “We have selectively chosen partners where we believe integration of their capabilities is in the best interest of our clients and consistent with our strategy,” says Mr Sethi. 

Sharing the workload

In fact, Merrill is much more open to these collaborations than many competitors and Mr Sethi is keenly aware that this is a necessary policy in order to provide speed and scale while transforming and modernising technology.

“All technology platforms that we partner with go through a rigorous evaluation process to ensure they can integrate seamlessly with our platforms,” he affirms.

Merrill Lynch Wealth Management has an official strategy of doubling the size of its digital specialist group, formed in late 2017, to enable advisers to effectively adopt and use digital capabilities and stay abreast of rapid changes across Merrill’s wealth platforms. 

As the firm has continued this digital evolution and further integrated itself within broader, Bank of America platforms, this specialist group has become more and more central to the bank’s overall digital strategy. Yet even the unit’s leading light, Mr Sethi, remains reluctant to be tied down to any hard-and-fast expansion numbers.

“While we don’t set specific targets on team size, we definitely plan to expand the team,” he says, referring to a wide-ranging plan to continue large-scale transformation across both client and adviser platforms.

Despite this reticence to commit definitive resources, Mr Sethi, who has progressively built a reputation for transformative work within BAML, is well aware of challenges the industry faces.

Observers say he quickly recognised in the mid 2000s that the role of digital capabilities for front-end client engagement would become a game-changer. A colleague of Mr Sethi says he went as far as actually “embedding himself” – from the very beginning of his time at the bank – into the optimisation process for operational platforms, to make sure he was always the first to know about any digital developments.

More recently, he has taken on board that traditional methods for acquiring new clients and deepening existing relationships have been uneconomic and draining for the bank for several years.

In order to increase efficiency, he has championed use of big data and artificial intelligence to freshen up digital client prospecting capabilities. “The old ways have become increasingly time consuming and inefficient for advisers,” reflects Mr Sethi. In order for growth to continue, he knew he would be obligated to provide advisers with digital tools allowing a dramatic strengthening of ability to acquire and deepen relationships. 

Widespread change

Alongside other banks, Merrill has emphasised the transformation of customer experience and client service, hand-in-hand with improving profitability. But there have also been parallel improvements on other fronts, including digitalisation of the investment process to boost portfolio returns.

A streamlining and integration of the goals-based wealth management experience has leveraged a primarily digital approach. “This powerful new solution combines our goal planning and hypothetical investment portfolio illustration capabilities into a single, seamless digital experience, allowing advisers to illustrate investment strategies directly in the context of a client’s goals,” says Mr Sethi.

The point of this is to help clients better understand the impact of their investment decisions on returns and visualise the consequences of any trade-offs in their strategies.

In order for these transformations to be successful, they must be reflected in compensation models for advisers. Mr Sethi understands, having studied many failed reorganisations at other banks, that these remuneration incentives are vital if a firm’s culture is to change.

“There are multiple ways to drive change at the scale that we have driven digital adoption,” he says, while admitting there is no “silver bullet” and any digitalisation strategy must take account of multiple factors, of which compensation is one. A focus on training and awareness and co-ordination of efforts across the entire Bank of America business are also key.

He champions, and has lobbied for, continued investment over an extended timeframe, rather than one-off injections to build new platforms, which many banks sanctioned in 2017-2018. “We have seen various approaches, but given the pace of change in today’s world and the manner in which our industry is evolving, a one-off investment is unlikely to yield sustainable benefits,” admits Mr Sethi.

Proved doubters wrong

With his vision and execution, Mr Sethi has set a high bar for digital and innovation leadership among private banking executives. 

Moreover, says Doug Fritz, president of F2 Strategy, he has proved wrong the many doubters who claimed a massive and complex firm like Merrill Lynch could not transform digital experience quickly, boost client-adviser connectivity and add measurably to the firm’s growth. 

The personal attributes which have won Mr Sethi much respect among private bankers in other firms, now keen to work for him, are also highlighted by Mr Fritz: “Kabir has a willingness to share his lessons and perspectives with other executives, while also agitating for the industry’s improvement.”

While there has been some success in encouraging a digital culture, it is clear that many initiatives have been personally supervised by Mr Sethi.

“The huge scope of the transformation initiative and the force of Kabir’s personality are likely to manifest significant improvements to the BAML client experience and also, ultimately, to operational efficiency,” says Mr Dovey, who knows Mr Sethi well.

But his leadership and initiatives are likely to have a much broader effect across the industry, much of which will take its lead from Merrill, notes Mr Dovey. “The effect of his work within BAML will drive a much wider change within the industry of wealth management. Other banks will note the initiatives of this major operator and seek themselves to remain competitive.”

Mr Sethi however, plays down his leadership achievements and influence over the bank’s digital ambitions. “Merrill Lynch has long had a tradition of strong, charismatic leaders in this space,” he says. “Many professionals like me continue to learn a tremendous amount from the leaders we have today.” 

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