Interview with Renaud de Planta

“Pictet is growing faster outside Geneva”

Over the past 30 years, Geneva has failed to keep pace with the Zurich financial centre. Renaud de Planta, Senior Partner of the Pictet Group, reflects on the reasons for this shift and what it means for the French-speaking canton.


The district of La Praille is undergoing a major transformation. The office tower being built by the Pictet Group already stands taller than the UBS building a few dozen metres away. On 1 July, Senior Partner Renaud de Planta will hand over the reins to Marc Pictet, after 26 years at the Geneva private bank. He describes a Geneva that is oblivious to its loss of competitiveness. And he doesn’t mince his words when it comes to banks with state guarantees which he believes have an unfair advantage over private banks. A look back at more than 30 years of banking experience.

Why did you join Pictet when you don’t bear the name of this private bank?

I had previously spent 12 years at UBS and had a great career, but at a big bank you are dependent on factors beyond your control. Strategic changes may be decided by boards of directors that may not be fully in tune with the business or market trends. What I found hugely attractive at Pictet was the idea that I could become an entrepreneur, be my own boss and co-lead a group – alongside trusted partners who are experts in their field – and shape its development.

The Pictet Group has undergone a considerable transformation since 1998. And many in French-speaking Switzerland may not necessarily realise this. We’ve gone from being a Geneva-based private bank, somewhat monocultural and solely French-speaking – with just one business line, private banking – to becoming an international investment group. While Pictet is still very much involved in wealth management, we are now also active in asset management and two other important areas: asset servicing and alternative investments, which is currently showing strong growth. We now also have 31 offices worldwide, with 400 staff in London, for example, 600 in Asia and another 800 in Luxembourg. We have gone from 1,000 to almost 6,000 employees, and from CHF 100 billion to almost CHF 700 billion in assets under management. In 25 years we have grown “sevenfold”, without mergers or acquisitions. It’s been an extraordinary transformation.

Are you really different from other banks?

We are a partnership, which makes an enormous difference. We are both owners and managers. When I step down at the end of June, I will no longer have a seat at the leadership table and my shares will be taken over by the other partners. The owners are active in the business. They are therefore known to our employees and clients. This lends a different kind of stability than that found at a large listed group, where you don’t know who the owners are as ownership interests keep changing hands.

Secondly, it affords us the luxury of long-term thinking, which is key. And if there’s one thing that sets us apart from our competitors, it’s thinking and acting for the long term.

Does that allow you to take more risks?

Not short-term risks. We never take speculative risks with our balance sheet. However, we do take strategic risks, which are always carefully calculated and more often than not pay off. If we had been listed on the stock exchange, we probably wouldn’t have branched out into asset
management, ventured into private equity or developed our presence in Asia and Japan in the way we have done.

But that didn’t stop you from being fined CHF 106.8 million, including 33.8 million in the United States, for helping US taxpayers evade tax between 2008 and 2014...

Put like that, it was clearly a mistake. But I don’t think it was done with conscious intent. We didn’t have a US desk initially and when we decided to develop the US private client market, we set up a dedicated company registered with the SEC back in 2007. Many clients concealed their dual nationality from us. The reality is that Swiss banks discovered the intricacies of US tax law at their own expense the hard way.

Today, recruiting a Swiss German to come to Geneva is almost mission impossible.
— Renaud de Planta, Senior Managing Partner of the Pictet Group

Is Zurich really Switzerland’s premier banking centre? And how do you make a name for yourself there as a private bank from the French-speaking part of Switzerland?

Zurich is by far Switzerland’s premier banking centre. The facts show that we are better.

So you’re actually better than the private bankers of Zurich?

Oh yes, without a doubt! (Laughs.) And I’m only half joking. Pictet is very well-known in German-speaking Switzerland.

So why has Geneva failed to keep pace?

Zurich has overtaken Geneva as a banking and financial centre for several reasons. In the 1990s, the big banks tended to centralise everything in Zurich. That greatly impoverished the fabric of the Geneva financial centre and the talent pool in Geneva. There were structural shocks, such as the decline in the status of Cointrin (Geneva’s airport) compared with Kloten, from 1998 onwards, which had a massive impact. For our Asian clients landing in Zurich, having to take another flight to Geneva is one flight too many. Many of our clients tell us that. And the framework conditions are not as good in Geneva as they are in Zurich. Many talented professionals prefer working in Zurich and living in central Switzerland, which is much more welcoming to high earners. The combination of these three fundamental factors explains the rise of Zurich compared with Geneva over the past 30 years, despite the intrinsic quality of the Genevan banks. Today, our business volume per employee in Zurich is several times that in Geneva.

Is there cause for concern?

If you project the trend I’ve just outlined, it’s fairly worrying for Geneva. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to recruit. Today, recruiting a Swiss German to come to Geneva is almost mission impossible.

Are the people of Geneva too arrogant?

In Geneva, people haven’t grasped the extent of the competition that exists between financial centres, and the need to remain competitive.

And yet, when you look at the state’s accounts, Geneva is in a good position.

The state’s accounts are enjoying a tremendous upturn, mainly thanks to certain very particular sectors such as commodity trading and ocean freight, but there’s an extremely cyclical dimension to these results. I would therefore exercise great caution regarding the sustainability of these surpluses. And Geneva needs a diversified economic fabric. Historically, we used to have this – with fine chemicals, watchmaking, banks and the financial centre, major companies – but we are seeing a steady erosion along with a threat to framework conditions.

Can you be more specific?

Initiatives by the radical left to impose higher taxes on certain players, especially in Geneva’s economic and financial centre, and attempts to make life more difficult for internationally active companies. Some of these pressures exist at national level, others are specific to Geneva. The people voted in a government with a tax-cutting programme. And so far, nothing has been implemented. Appeals and legal red tape are systematically being used to play for time, so taxes are not going down. Meanwhile, Geneva has the highest rate of personal income tax of any canton in Switzerland, by far.

I also think we are seeing the radicalisation of opposition circles who refuse to grasp the economic challenges at play. And unfortunately, Geneva is
not an island. These circles need to understand this, otherwise we’ll be sawing off the branch we’re sitting on.

But Geneva has the highest health insurance premiums in Switzerland and 30% of the population needs help with paying them. How can we resolve this gap between the social classes?

The economic fabric must be protected in order to obtain the fiscal resources and to finance this social state. The tax pyramid is extremely fragile in Geneva. If a few companies decided to move their headquarters to the other side of Versoix (river) or to German-speaking Switzerland, we could see a significant drop in tax revenues. The first priority should be to secure tax revenues and the presence of major taxpayers. Which can’t be taken for granted in the current situation.


And yet you are building a very large new building in Geneva...

Yes, but we are significantly expanding our offices abroad, much faster than in Geneva. Just because you build an office tower doesn’t mean you will be stuck there for 50 years. Objectively, we’ll go where the constraints force us to go. Geneva needs to be careful. That’s not my personal opinion, it’s what most business leaders in Geneva think. In 1998, 90% of Pictet’s employees were in Geneva and 10% abroad. Today, 40% are outside Geneva.

And do you employ more staff in Geneva than in Zurich?

At the moment we have about 200 employees in Zurich and just over 2,800 in Geneva. But the number of positions doesn’t necessarily reflect the salary bill. The ratio isn’t 10 to 1. There are many high value positions in Zurich.

So are your employees better paid in Zurich?

They aren’t better paid, they have different jobs. All our operational activities are here in Geneva. Those are the positions with less added value. The percentage of specialist positions is higher in Zurich. Today, three out of every four new positions are created outside Geneva. When I started, it was one in 10. The Group is therefore growing faster elsewhere than in Geneva.

The Proust questionnaire

  • What is your principal character trait?

    I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer that question. I think I’m pretty good at reading people.

  • Which gift of nature would you like to have?

    To be a force of nature.

  • Name a person you admire.

    Roger Federer, for his winning mindset, his ability to challenge himself and perform better, constantly.

  • What is your favourite motto?

    The family motto. It’s esse quam videri in Latin, which means “it’s better to be than to seem”.

  • What do you hate most?


  • Which book would you take to a desert island?

    I’d take two books. The Bible, out of personal conviction, and “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust.

  • What would you most like to have achieved in your life?

    My grandfather always said: “Be happy, make others happy.” And that’s a good thing to aim for in life.

  • How are you feeling right now?

    A bit tired after such a marathon, but happy to be starting a new chapter of my life.


When banking secrecy came to an end, banks sounded the alarm about a wave of significant job losses that ultimately never happened. Can  bankers still be believed when they talk about their future?

There have been job losses. Not at our Bank, but smaller competitors reduced their headcount and are now experiencing difficulties. The big players emerged largely unscathed, but many private banks are barely profitable today. Our business is cyclical and faces huge competition from other financial centres.

We responded to this problem by opening subsidiaries and branches throughout Europe. The biggest Swiss banks have created their own access through having a presence in the European Union, but the smaller ones won’t be able to do this unless the Confederation manages to negotiate market access conditions for them. If we move jobs, whether outside Geneva or outside Switzerland, it is more a problem for the country than for the banks.

Do you foresee more consolidation in the banking sector?

Yes. We can debate the many reasons for the sad demise of Credit Suisse. It was no doubt linked to a long-term deterioration in profitability, but also to a deterioration in the framework conditions. When I began my career, there were five big Swiss banks. They eventually merged into one. So, indeed, jobs have been lost. It’s obviously very regrettable that there’s only one very big bank. No one could have wished for this scenario, not even UBS. The Credit Suisse debacle has clearly not had a favourable impact, and that’s without counting the other hurdle for Swiss banks: the – possibly mistaken – perception in Asia and the Middle East that Switzerland is no longer as neutral as it was, following the war in Ukraine and the near verbatim adoption of the EU sanctions. This is worrying many Asian and Middle Eastern clients of the Swiss banks.

Where have Credit Suisse’s clients gone?

A small number have moved to Swiss banks – largely in fact to the state-backed banks in Switzerland – and many to foreign banks, in Asia and the United States. The depositor base of Swiss banks has been depleted.

Two of the four systemic banks in Switzerland are state-owned, with taxpayer guarantees.
— Renaud de Planta, Senior Managing Partner of the Pictet Group

So this crisis has benefited foreign banks?

Yes. As well as the cantonal banks, which are state-owned. Two of the four systemic banks in Switzerland are state-owned, with taxpayer guarantees. No one talks about that, which is surreal. And everyone is worried about UBS, which is currently in very good health.

Should the state not be playing this role in Switzerland?

Over the past 30 to 40 years, most banking problems have been linked to state-owned banks: the Cantonal Bank of Geneva, the Cantonal Bank of Valais, the Cantonal Bank of Vaud and the Cantonal Bank of Bern. Nearly all of them have had to be rescued at some point by the state, which means the taxpayer. Have lessons been learned from this? Not really. Banks should not belong to the state. They compete unfairly with other banks.

A full private shareholder base, as in the case of Credit Suisse, isn’t the solution either...

If the governance is poor, or the corporate culture inadequate, there will be problems. A self-regulating market mechanism must also be in place. If you have a supervisory authority that works properly and knows when to intervene, it will protect financial stability.

Which didn’t actually happen...

The intervention was late, but, in the end, the taxpayer didn’t lose a cent. On the other hand, rescuing the Cantonal Bank of Geneva cost the  canton five billion. This is an enormous sum.

Banks are major employers and fiscal contributors. But according to the latest survey onbanks by gfs.bern, 79% of Swiss voters think that the latter put profit before social responsibility and that they are at the heart of financial scandals. Are you misunderstood?

I think that we as a sector have not done well enough on the communications front, but there have also been headwinds. The wider public doesn’t always realise the added value that the financial centre brings to Switzerland, beyond just tax revenues. The banking sector has a very positive multiplier effect on other related sectors such as IT, service companies, fiduciaries and lawyers. There are cybersecurity companies in Switzerland whose primary customers are banks, thus ensuring that our country has expertise in this field. Thanks to the banks. It is too often forgotten that they are an important part of a wider ecosystem which benefits Switzerland enormously.

You are stepping down on 28 June. How do you feel about that prospect?

There is certainly a touch of  emotion at the thought of leaving my position. I’m going to serve on the Board of Directors of the bank and the holding company. So I will still remain connected to the Pictet Group. I’m also looking forward to taking up my new role on the Bank Council of the Swiss National Bank. And then, more generally, to slowing down a little and being able to spend more time on other activities close to my heart, especially in the philanthropic domain. So in a way, it’s bittersweet.

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