Making money can be too much trouble

The Life: Rohit Walia talks about managing the Middle Eastern and Indian business of Alpen Capital Group and Bank Sarasin-Alpen Group.

Rohit Walia's motto, "If in doubt, stay out," has served him well. Satish Kumar / The National
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Rohit Walia is chief executive and executive vice chairman of Alpen Capital Group and Bank Sarasin-Alpen Group, which helps manage more than 103 billion Swiss Francs (Dh445.12bn) in assets under the Swiss-based Sarasin Group. He recently spoke from his Dubai office about managing the bank's business in the Middle East and India.

You had more than 20 years of banking experience when you opened this office in 2005. How did you try entering the market differently from competitors?

I think because of the fact that I'm a corporate banker, and not really a private banker, I pushed down the bank's throat I should be allowed to have corporate advisory banking in the Middle East. Typically, when a rich entrepreneur comes [to the bank], if all I'm going to discuss with you is products, the meeting will not go more than 20 minutes. But if I talk to you about selling your business [or] raising cash for you, you as an entrepreneur are getting more seriously involved with me.

How are you different from your competition?

I talk to clients all the time. I've never gone out and shown my own product first. I ask them what they want. We never ever push our own products, which is a big differentiating factor between us and a number of other banks. It takes away revenue from us. That's fine.

But you have to generate revenue somewhere.

If it's an issue, we are able to [charge] clients an advisory fee. Our typical client isn't one that wants to save a few cents. They admire the advice we give.

As a subsidiary of a larger bank, how do you maintain your independence?

Don't do anything silly - like, I tell my colleagues not to get me into trouble. We want to make money, but I don't really want to make money and have troubles. As far as our parent is concerned, we are probably the most compliant subsidiary they've ever seen. I have my famous saying: "If in doubt, stay out."

Your mantra sounds noble but there's got to be pressure for higher profits.

There's always pressure, but it all depends on how you react. Do the shareholders need to make 9 cents per share or can they survive with 8 cents? Do we get clients into trouble? The bank into trouble? Maybe not. Some bigger firms in the US decided to do a few silly things. We want to avoid that reputation, and I've managed to do it very well.

Recent regulations from the Central Bank have curbed certain fees and capped loans. What parts of your business have they hurt the most?

Like I said, you have to manage. In Bahrain, I have to inform the regulator pre-fact what I'm selling. In Oman, post-fact. We have to live with regulations. There's no point in rebelling against regulations. If they are coming down they're for a good cause.

But how do you recoup fees you would have otherwise received?

What the regulator is trying to do is get some of the hidden or unknown costs out of transactions. You go to the client and say: "The regulator says I can't do this, but I need to make money [and will charge an advisory fee] otherwise I won't be in business." And the client decides to pay us.

* Neil Parmar