She’s good with numbers and with people

She’s good with numbers and with people

Elif Aktuğ, Managing Partner, has reached the top of Geneva private bank Pictet, after spending a decade figuring, listening and delivering.

Elif Aktuğ’s journey into the premier league of the Swiss banking sector started in 2010, with a blank sheet of paper and an analysis. The securities trader at Goldman Sachs and her husband, who was then a management consultant, wanted to leave London. For one thing, the young family felt there were too many helicopter parents there. For another, Goldman had had to cut its proprietary trading in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Aktuğ, who had been looking after the European equities book, asked herself where she could best apply her talents.

All global cities, from Istanbul and São Paulo to Sydney, were plotted on her graph, with the professional advantages on the x-axis and quality of life on the y-axis. “Geneva came out at the top right,” she says. It so happened that Pictet in Geneva was looking for fund managers.

Elif Aktuğ joined the private bank and built up the Agora hedge fund, which specialises in European large cap companies and aims to avoid correlating with the equity markets as far as possible. When Aktuğ handed over control of the fund in early September 2021, its assets stood at EUR 2.5 billion.

A job almost for life

Her skill at conducting analyses has brought the 47-year-old Turk a long way. In 2021, Aktuğ became the first woman to be made a managing partner in Pictet’s 217-year history. This must be one of the most coveted top jobs in the Swiss financial world – a chance to become part of the Pictet legend. After all, the bank’s partners remain in post for around 20 years on average, and they own what is in many respects the country’s biggest private bank.

Currently consisting of eight members, this collegial body is responsible for over 5,000 employees, for assets under management worth some CHF 700 billion, and for allocating Pictet’s annual profits, which recently passed the billion-franc mark. Although the managing partners stopped being jointly and severally liable to clients to the extent of their own personal wealth in 2014, they still bear more responsibility than they would as normal shareholders in a public company. The partners buy a stake in the bank for a significant amount, which they first have to earn. Each partner has a vote, and all eight have a corresponding impact on how the bank performs.

“My role has certainly changed very considerably,” says Aktuğ. “I’m no longer constantly checking my Bloomberg terminal.” However, she feels that the most important qualities she needed in her former job are still helping her today: listening, asking the right questions, making decisions despite uncertainty.

Asset management, or looking after assets for institutional clients, is regarded as the domain of number crunchers and analytical types, and this is also true of Aktuğ. As a trader, and later a fund manager, she had to evaluate new information in seconds and make decisions worth millions. Day after day.

Yet the key to Aktuğ’s success no doubt also lies in her understanding of people and her leadership qualities. In the long-term hedge funds business it takes years to discover whether a strategy is a success. This inevitably means placing huge trust in the teams. Until that point, managers such as Aktuğ have to measure their employees in terms of their team spirit and approach to work. An egocentric attitude would do more harm than good, she says. She assembled her five-member Agora team with this in mind: “I wasn't simply looking for investment experts who were individually good. I wanted people with strong convictions, who are nevertheless able to change their minds if someone puts forward a better argument.”

Aktuğ is an attentive listener – in conversation, she regularly picks up on things the other person has said in passing or at the start of the discussion. This is not a very common skill in the world of banking, where many people prefer hearing themselves speak to listening to others.

Another reason she chose Pictet in 2010 is that she believed the bank's management shared her long-term outlook and would not apply the emergency brake at the first sign of market turbulence. “There are many parallels between Pictet and Goldman Sachs, especially before it went public,” says Aktuğ, adding that Pictet’s employees are loyal, and its culture meritocratic. Then there is the “one firm” approach: communication channels are short and teams talk to each other instead of getting bogged down in rivalries.

The chemistry has to be right

The way the Pictet managing partners of the time selected Aktuğ says much about the Geneva bank. She says she did not have a formal job interview. Before being selected, Aktuğ was one of around 50 equity partners. These form the next level of management below the managing partners, share in Pictet’s success and thus constitute a natural pool of candidates for the top tier.

However, Aktuğ says she was focusing on her day-to-day work and wasn’t expecting to be asked. Only in retrospect did she realise that a number of conversations she had with various partners were presumably connected with her selection. Without being aware of it, she had already submitted her application – by producing good work for the past 10 years. Nevertheless, the bar was high. During the selection process, the managing partners pay great heed to the cultural fit, since they will have to spend decades working with the new person.

They must have carried out a particularly careful evaluation on this occasion, because they didn't want to risk making a mistake. Shortly after Elif Aktuğ joined them in June 2021, another managing partner, former head of Julius Baer Boris Collardi, left Pictet after only three years. It seems he did not fit in with the Geneva bankers’ culture. A miscalculation on both sides, and a mutual disappointment.

Aktuğ describes the early death of her father – who died when she was 11 years old – as a key moment in her life: “I wanted to live up to the high expectations he had for me.” Her father was a diplomat. He first represented Turkey in Brazil and the United Kingdom, and then served as ambassador to Tunisia, the Czech Republic and Algeria. This meant that Elif Aktuğ had an international upbringing.

Thanks to a grant from the French government, she was later able to study at the prestigious ‘Sciences Po’; she had to earn the money for her MBA at Stanford herself. At the Californian university she met her husband, who was following a completely different career path as an engineer. After working for McKinsey, he founded a start-up that makes it possible to track the conditions under which wines are stored.

Aktuğ hopes to transmit her work habits and personal values to her three daughters. “I’d like to encourage them to make the best of their opportunities, without pressuring them to meet my own expectations.”

A bank undergoing transformation

Elif Aktuğ’s rise to managing partner reflects the transformation that the bank is undergoing. Pictet may still be perceived by the public as a family-run, discreet Geneva private bank for the ultra-wealthy, but it has grown strongly over the past 20 years, particularly in the area of asset management. Its institutional client business now contributes more than half of its turnover and profit, pushing Pictet up to number three in the Swiss banking sector on many counts.

Aktuğ’s current task is to drive forward the broad field of alternative or private market investments. This includes company stakes, infrastructure projects and notes that are not traded on a stock exchange and are accordingly hard for the ordinary investor to access. Alternative investments have experienced a boom in recent years, partly because the low interest rate environment has made other asset classes appear unattractive.

Pictet was already making such investments “avant la lettre” 30 years ago, and now manages more than CHF 30 billion in alternative investments. Nevertheless, under Aktuğ’s guidance the bank wants to obtain an even bigger slice of a cake that is expected to continue growing, according to sector reports. There are also hopes of simplifying access to this asset class, which has long been regarded as rather unwieldy: even “ordinary millionaires” used to find it almost impossible to access. This aspiration is now widely shared.

Pictet will find it no easy task to shake off the competition. Furthermore, demand for the asset class has soared. Providers are all having difficulty finding enough buying opportunities for the large amounts of wealth being offered to them. Aktuğ says it's a question of becoming the best, rather than the biggest, provider. Whether she can turn this ambition into reality will – as for Agora – only become apparent in many years’ time. She can hardly go wrong if she starts off with a blank sheet of paper and a clear-headed analysis before taking the next step.

Elif Aktuğ has been Managing Partner of the Pictet Group since September 2021.

Interview published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Saturday 14 May 2022
©2022, André Müller, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
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