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From Wall Street to Calcutta streets, to Credit Suisse

After graduation, Mr Francesco de Ferrari was due to start work at Goldman Sachs but decided on a vacation first - and eventually never showed up.
After graduation, Mr Francesco de Ferrari was due to start work at Goldman Sachs but decided on a vacation first - and eventually never showed up.PHOTO: CREDIT SUISSE

Francesco de Ferrari, unconventional private banker, puts his money where his mouth is

Banker Francesco de Ferrari never actually showed up for his first job at Goldman Sachs as a young graduate. "Instead of Wall Street, I went to the Calcutta streets," he says.

With a slightly sheepish laugh, the Singapore-based Asia-Pacific head of private banking at Credit Suisse recalls that he was initially drawn by "the appeal of Wall Street".

The United States-born Italian and Swiss citizen had studied economics and international business and decided to head to "the best company on the Street at that time".

That was Goldman Sachs but, "back then, there was very little vacation in the first two years of the job so I took my vacation before I started and liked it so much that I never showed up".

The New York University Stern School of Business graduate drove across the US and then travelled around India with a Salesian priest, visiting hospitals and leprosy homes. Perhaps through divine connection, he also spent a few months in Calcutta with Mother Teresa "picking dying people off the street".

If he had turned up for work, he might never have found his way to private-banking giant Credit Suisse. However, Mr de Ferrari, 48, admits there was no epiphany even after his adventures.

IMPORTANCE OF TRANSPARENCY

There's not a lot of transparency in the business but I always ask myself: As an entrepreneur running a private banking business, I know how I'm doing versus internal targets, but how am I doing versus competition and the market? Few banks disclose numbers publicly and I'm a big believer of transparency, so, in Credit Suisse, we disclosed all our financials for the Asia private banking business in detail.

MR FRANCESCO DE FERRARI, on why Credit Suisse discloses all its financials for the Asia private banking business in detail.

"I was confused and returned to my mentor and professor in university. I said, I don't think investment banking is for me but I'm not sure what I want to do. My passion is probably going to be more around building businesses.

"He said, if you're not sure and you want to build businesses and have your own, start with the numbers. You need to understand the financials and the numbers if you want to run anything in your life."

Mr de Ferrari took his advice and spent two years as an accountant at Deloitte & Touche, learning all that he could before joining food giant Nestle in 1993.

He spent three years there, involved in buying businesses, operational audits and improving performance across different places, including Brazil and Taiwan.

"It was great as I'd spend a lot of time in factories on the production floor, looking at how chocolate or polo mints were made," Mr de Ferrari fondly recalls, noting how the scent of mint marked his trail.

He left Nestle to pursue an MBA at global business school Insead before becoming a McKinsey consultant for three years, focusing on financial institutions.

"In 1999, I got married - a major turning point in my life. That coincided with the fact that I wanted to see if I could be an entrepreneur and run my own business," notes Mr de Ferrari, who is Credit Suisse's South-east Asia and frontier markets chief executive.

DOING THE RIGHT THINGS

My team sort of laughs at me but, every time we launch a big, new product, I always buy it with my own money. The teams know when you sell anything important, if it goes bad they are not just going to have upset clients but also an upset boss. That keeps everyone a lot more focused on doing the right things.

It might seem simple, but I think it's the ethical way forward and I haven't found many other people doing that. Nestle taught me that you cannot produce food you're unhappy eating yourself.

MR DE FERRARI, on taking his firm's risks in big, new products personally.

For the next four years, he founded and ran three businesses.

The first organised art exhibitions and events. His co-founder is still running the business, which has become "Italy's largest art and museum organising company".

"Then I opened 20 stores to sell sunglasses around Italy, in airports and shopping malls. By the end of the 1990s, I tried my luck in the new economy, still in the optical world." In 2002, Mr de Ferrari, who has five children aged between seven and 16, joined Credit Suisse in Italy as chief financial officer. He has been with the firm since.

Under his watch, Credit Suisse's private banking business in Asia has seen the fastest growth in the region over the past five years. The banker was also named an Institute of Banking and Finance Singapore Distinguished Fellow last year.

Credit Suisse's largest hub in the region is Singapore, the biggest booking centre outside Switzerland.

Over the years, Mr de Ferrari has "learnt a lot from my successes and just as much from my failures" - all valuable lessons he brought into banking.

For instance, Mr de Ferrari's experience with his tech start-up - for opticians to exchange products among themselves - taught him the value of ethics.

When the dotcom crash came, a prominent billionaire investor became anxious and backed off, even though contracts were in place.

"We had 50 employees, I paid them out of my own pocket and, after a year, I finished most of my money. I learnt ethics can't be taught in school - you learn it the hard way. "

He says his job as chief executive is easy: "I need to make sure we hire people with the right principles, and get rid of people who don't fit those principles. In the business of trust, there are no shortcuts."

It is also why he advocates transparency. "There's not a lot of transparency in the business but I always ask myself: As an entrepreneur running a private banking business, I know how I'm doing versus internal targets, but how am I doing versus competition and the market?

"Few banks disclose private banking numbers publicly and I'm a big believer of transparency, so, in Credit Suisse, we disclosed all our financials for the Asia private banking business in detail." He says only three other banks do so and, using the data, he found that Credit Suisse's turnover rose 17 per cent in 2016, outperforming the market.

Mr de Ferrari refuses to run from challenges, saying: "It is never the option because the grass is never greener on the other side. I tell people that if there's an issue let's sit down and resolve it." That is how Credit Suisse has maintained its footing in Asia, where private banking has become "increasingly complicated over the years".

"When I arrived, everyone was talking about looking for growth in Asia. The reality is, the six years I've been here, at least nine major global banks no longer operate their private banking in Asia. "

The private banking business , he says, is "a marathon, not a sprint... and you need courage to do the right things that are somehow different from what the rest of the industry is doing".

For instance, Credit Suisse bought a private banking business in Japan from HSBC in 2012, and it is now one of the firm's top three markets in terms of growth this year.

Mr de Ferrari says: "I remember a lot of people asked ' Why are you buying in Japan? Asia is all about China.' Japan has a huge opportunity - for 20 years, it was in deflation with asset prices going down and a stronger yen. For Japanese investors, the best thing was to keep cash in yen.

"All of a sudden, you had the Fukushima accident in 2011 and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wanted to push up inflation and depreciate the currency... You have a whole country that needs to learn how to invest - no longer domestically, but globally. Guess what? We're one of the few global private banks that operate there."

Credit Suisse was also bold in Australia, as he notes: "All other competitors shut their business. We stayed with a different business model and, last year, it was our strongest performing private banking business in Asia. My passion for building business couldn't be better channelled in Asia."

The unconventional Mr de Ferrari is also someone who puts his money where his mouth is.

"My team sort of laughs at me but, every time we launch a big, new product, I buy it with my own money. The teams know when you sell anything important, if it goes bad they are not just going to have upset clients but also an upset boss. That keeps everyone a lot more focused on doing the right things.

"It might seem simple, but I think it's the ethical way forward and I haven't found many other people doing that. Nestle taught me that you cannot produce food you're unhappy eating yourself."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'From Wall Street to Calcutta streets, to Credit Suisse'. Print Edition | Subscribe