Looking behind the riches

Serene el Masri heads BNP Paribas's wealth-management business in the Middle East and advises some of the region's wealthiest people on financial matters.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Wealth Management CEO at BNP Paribas, Serene Al Masri, seen at her home in Bahrain on 3 December 2009.  *** Local Caption ***  BHR_1705.JPG
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Serene el Masri heads BNP Paribas's wealth-management business in the Middle East and advises some of the region's wealthiest people on financial matters, but while she enjoys the finer things in life, she maintains a humble attitude towards money. Uta Harnischfeger writes Serene el Masri dines among Renaissance paintings with some of the world's richest people, attends their lavish housewarming parties on Italian islands or enjoys maiden voyages on their newly financed fancy yachts.

The 36-year-old has gone from advising wealthy business owners on mergers and acquisitions, taxes and succession planning to working closely with them when investing the millions she hel ped them earn. Today, she heads BNP Paribas's wealth management business in the Middle East. Along the way, the petite Lebanese who almost became a doctor rather than a lawyer, has learnt a lot about rich people: how they feel; who they are; and what they want. She says she has a somewhat bittersweet relationship with wealth.

From a young age, her father reminded her of her family's humble beginnings. After entering Beirut's top school on scholarship, Ms el Masri's father got rheumatism from living in wet rooms during several winters. He had to hand wash his only school suit every week. Though she has never known such privation, Ms el Masri says the paternal accounts of a childhood in poverty left her with a humble attitude towards money.

"His stories taught me humility, they define who I am." That attitude helps her to enjoy her job without feeling envy. She says she looks behind the glitter to see the people. "You must have a certain upbringing and be a balanced person," she says. Her clients often surprise her. "Some clients will take you to Burger King and there is nothing wrong with that." After finishing high school in Geneva, Ms el Masri says she was torn between medicine or the law. Again, it was her father who helped her decide. Studying law, he said, would leave her with the widest possible choices later on. He proved right. Ms el Masri sounds like she uses the skills of both a divorce lawyer and a psychiatrist in her work as a banker.

"You end up knowing so much about them," she says. "Yes, there are ugly incidents when they fight over money and end up in front of the courts. Yes, you see lots of tears and drama. That is part of the myth. But at the end of the day they go through the same things like everyone else." Eighteen months ago, Ms el Masri was sent from Paris to revitalise the bank's wealth management business in the Middle East. A few years earlier, the French bank had set up shop in the Middle East and hired regional advisers all around the GCC, but it was not as successful as had been hoped.

As Ms el Masri had been working with ultra-wealthy clients for more than a decade, the bank turned to her to help build its business in the region. Although the total number of "ultra high-net worth individuals", those with investable assets of more than US$30 million (Dh110.1m) worldwide fell by nearly 25 per cent last year, there are still enough monied people around for BNP's wealth management team. This is particularly true in the Gulf, home of many of those ultra high-net worth individuals.

"Yes, the rich lost a lot, but many of them still have enough to keep financing yachts, which, by the way, are getting cheaper all the time," she says with a smile. Ms el Masri has ambitious goals: She wants to double the bank's current market share in the GCC of about 7 to 8 per cent by 2012. Compared with the big players, UBS, Credit Suisse and Citibank, who have about two thirds of the market between them, and HSBC with about 10 per cent, BNP Paribas is among the smaller group.

Ms el Masri's team focuses on Gulf Arabs and resident Indians in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. "These are the most profitable clients because they are active investors," she says. Instead of taking their money to financial centres, such as Cayman Islands, Luxembourg or Jersey, which are attractive because they do not levy taxes and are less regulated, she advises clients to invest locally and regionally. This includes investments in bonds or equities denominated in the local currency. Her bank also offers a wide range of Shariah-compliant, products.

She says she has been trying to focus on providing more specialised options such as property advisory and lending. "My clients just absolutely love buying property in Europe," she says. And the strengthening of the euro and British pound against the US dollar, the reference currency for Arab clients, has made property acquisitions in Paris and London cheaper. "On ne prete qu'aux riches [one only lends to the rich]," says Ms el Masri, who speaks fluent French and Italian besides her native Arabic and English.

"The richer the client, the more he borrows. They want to incur more risk on certain investments in order to increase their targeted returns. Arabs, Turks, Greeks and the Chinese are big on leverage." She is quick to point out that the bank lends only for trading in 12 selected blue chip stocks in the UAE such as the developers Aldar and Emaar. The bank also has specialists who focus solely on this area of business.

Ms el Masri started her career by advising on mergers and acquisitions. While still at the Sorbonne, where she got a Master's degree in law after completing her undergraduate studies in Nice, she started working for Salans Hertzfeld, which specialises in cross-border mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and property in Europe. During her tenure there in Paris and New York, she received her Ph.D "on the side", she says, studying international finance law. Her doctoral thesis was on privatisation in the Middle East.

She then joined BNP Paribas, initially, to advise on tax and succession planning. Later, she launched and subsequently headed a corporate advisory team within the bank's wealth management division called the advisory partnership. It advised the very wealthiest clients, mostly eastern and south Europeans and Arabs, on issues ranging from succession and tax planning to philanthropic matters. After dealing with "liquidity triggering events" and helping clients to take public a family business or sell it, she now advises them on the next step: what to do with their money. "It was a natural succession," she says.

"I was sick of lawyering, sick of advising and tired of M&A. I did not want an easier job, but I wanted more international clients and I wanted to travel." In a classic case of be careful what you wish for, Ms el Masri now says she would like to travel less. Still, she says, her work moves her. Not because of the amounts of money available but what can be done with it. "It is not the wealth that bowls me over, but the aesthetics, of, say a nice painting or a piece of art." Her years with the wealthy have fostered a love of fine art, architecture and interior design.

One of her the most memorable client events that she cherishes to this day was the "inauguration" of a private home on a canal in Venice. It had been transformed from a Palazzio and now housed the owner's Renaissance art collection. "I am colour blind and money blind," Ms el Masri says, even though she grew up in a well-off family - moving from Beirut to Athens, Rome, Geneva and Paris - and has dealt with the wealthy all of her professional life. The exposure left her somewhat indifferent toward money, she says, which makes it easier for her to advise clients neutrally.

Ms el Masri calls herself an "uprooted person that does not belong anywhere". Her father was an executive for the pharmaceuticals maker Eli Lilly and moved the family every few years, a childhood that did, however, leave her with a strong nostalgia for Lebanon, which she left in 1975 at the age of two. "I was lucky that I didn't live in Lebanon during the war years so I didn't see the war like the kids who stayed behind."

Moving from one international school to the next also made her comfortable with a variety of cultures and nationalities, something that helps her relate to her diverse group of clients. Today, she loves her house on Amwaj, one of the islands off Bahrain, and hopes she can do less business travel in order to spend more time there. The years of exposure to her clients' beautiful homes and art collections have piqued her own interest in both.

She spends any free time she has shopping for antiques, particularly Japanese ones. She has long enjoyed visiting two favourite boutiques, one in Lausanne, Switzerland, and another in Siam Reap, Cambodia. But a busy schedule since her arrival in the Middle East has made that difficult. Until she can return, she hopes to find a client who collects Japanese art. @Email:uharnischfeger@thenational.ae