The first woman to make partner at Pictet
Interview by María Domínguez, published in El Economista, Monday 5 September 2022
Elif Aktuğ, who is Turkish, describes the early death of her father, who died when she was 11, 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 and Elif had an international upbringing, growing up in London, Ankara and Paris – where, thanks to a grant, she was later able to study at the prestigious Sciences Po (Institut d'Études Politiques).
This 47-year-old claimed the top prize in the Swiss banking industry when, in September 2021, she was named the first female managing partner of Pictet in its 217-year history, thus becoming the 44th in the long line of individuals to have held the position. Elif is the managing partner who oversees the alternative investments unit, Pictet Alternative Advisors, which manages more than €35 billion in assets.
Her journey to the top began 11 years ago. A natural in financial analysis who had worked as a securities trader at Goldman Sachs, at the time she was asking herself where next she could best apply her talents. Geneva came first in terms of professional advantages and quality of life. So she joined Pictet in 2011 and incepted the Agora hedge fund, which invests in European large caps. Assets under management stood at €2.5 billion when she handed over management of this fund in early September 2021.
Elif did not undergo a formal interview before being named a managing partner. At the time she was focusing on her job and only later did she realise that her conversations with various partners – impressed by her solid track record since joining – were related to her selection. Pictet’s managing partners painstakingly weigh up each appointment since they may have to spend decades working with the new person. They cannot risk making a mistake.
In 2020 she was named Best Female Fund Manager by Hedge Funds Review. She has also helped further the cause of diversity and inclusion, for example as co-founder of the Pictet Women’s Network, which promotes the professional development of women within the Group.
Elif hopes to pass on her work habits and personal values to her three daughters but will not pressure them into meeting her expectations. She met her husband at Stanford, where she studied for an MBA (he founded a start-up to track the conditions under which wines are stored).
Elif’s current task is to drive forward the broad field of alternative and private market investments, including plans to simplify access to this asset class. Alternative investments – which in addition to hedge funds cover private equity (e.g. investing in unlisted companies at various growth stages), real estate and infrastructure – are increasingly popping up on the radar screens of sustainability-oriented investors. “The market is heading in a definite direction. In private markets, investors have made it clear that they want to focus on sustainability,” said Elif when talking to elEconomista.es recently over the phone. In the past three years there has been a boom in investments graded according to environmental, social and governance criteria (ESG). First to gain were liquid assets; then illiquid assets were caught up in the trend.
Private markets are also set to become more accessible to investors of all kinds. In Spain, for example, the Economic Affairs Ministry is drafting a law that would lower the minimum upfront investment from €100,000 to €10,000. While Elif understands this move towards wider distribution, retail investors should be warned (“to avoid nasty surprises”) that if they invest in such assets, they will have to wait years to access their principal, she cautions.
In her expert opinion, which alternative assets have the most upside at the moment? “Asking me this is like asking me which one of my daughters I love the most,” she retorts with a chuckle. “We’ve a massive opportunity ahead of us. Many investors do not have enough of this asset category in their portfolios,” she adds – assets that “curtail volatility” in portfolios precisely in a context of rising prices. “For example, real estate is a natural inflation hedge because rents usually rise in tandem,” she points out.
This coming year Pictet Alternative Advisors will be launching an ESG private equity fund and will do something involving private debt. These products are due to be labelled as Article 8 Funds, in reference to the European Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), by virtue of their specific sustainability characteristics.
The SFDR, in force for around 18 months, has become the yardstick for ESG investments in Europe, generating a considerable amount of work for management companies forced to relabel their fund ranges using the criteria laid down by the European Commission. Says Elif, “we’re making every effort to ensure that the new funds are Article 8 compliant”.