As calm as he is eloquent, Michael Blake, general manager of Coutts Asia, is a thorough reflection of the Coutts ideology of prioritising the long-term needs of their clients with personal concern. In conversation with PBI’s Sruti Rao, the man at the forefront of the Coutts Asia operations, highlights the intricate balance of preserving the Coutts heritage while keeping up with the ever-changing demands of the Asian clientele.
As the mild and gracious executive reflected, Blake joined the organisation in January 2011 as chief of staff, at a time when Coutts was implementing a significant change in its strategy.
Blake humbly elaborates: "Coming in as chief of staff really gave me a ring-side seat in the definition and the implementation of the strategy. The strategy itself, the challenge that Rory and the team were dealing with was that Coutts had a fabulous wealth management brand and a fabulous heritage. The challenge was how do you polish and retain it, but at the same time make sure that it changes with the times, and that it’s still contemporary in the way that it meets clients’ needs."
At the time, Coutts, the wealth management arm of Royal Bank of Scotland, announced the launch of a single brand strategy globally, that would align their international private banking business and the UK business of Coutts under a single brand. The strategy was adopted to allow the bank to focus on core markets where it can achieve scale. In effect, the bank implemented a major revamp in their operations, bringing in a focus in their key growth markets of Asia, Middle East, and some markets in Central and Eastern Europe.
As Blake reflects: "Like many private banks, we could see that we had a large number of clients in many markets – the Coutts diaspora in a way -and it was pretty clear that in today’s world, that made no sense from an economic perspective."
"The first step was to focus on those markets where we can gain critical mass and the brand can really resonate. Part of that was taking the number of markets that we are focused on from a 150-160, down to something close to 50."
Following the unification, there was a greater sense of clarity of brand identity for the existing and prospective staff of the bank. More importantly, what this strategy brought to the Asian shores was a sense of the Coutts heritage that clients in this region were able to relate to. It was the implementation and the delivery of this brand promise that Blake led from 2012 as general manager for the region.
Remaining relevant in Asia
For arecognizably English gentleman the resounding excitement of experiencing the Asia growth story first-hand, was immediately evident from the general manager. Arriving in Beijing in 1999 through his former experience with UBS, Blake expressed an immediate connection to the region, and a vision that he was here for the long-haul.
"The constant pace of change is just remarkable to watch and be part of. I love the atmosphere, the can-do attitude, the constant change. I think markets like Hong Kong and Singapore have been constantly reinventing themselves to keep up with the times and just as companies need to do that, I think it’s amazing to see entire economies do the same. I knew as soon as I got here, that I was going to be here for a long time."
Nonetheless, in order to capture the growth and maintain interest in the region, there is naturally a need to customise wealth services for Asia’s specific needs. The historic legacy of the Coutts brand brings a sense of stability and tradition, and a key element that Blake highlights, that reinforced their ability to advise clients over several generations. However the hands-on and ever-changing nature of the Asian clientele is an element that the bank is very aware of in shaping their service proposition.
Blake very pragmatically appreciates that Asian customers have practical and exclusive demands that make them engage in more than one banking relationship. It is in this context, the truly successful wealth managers are those that can address the difficult questions and engage a more personal relationship with them. The ‘trusted advisor’ status becomes quite an important aspect of the bank’s sustainability.
Blake says: "All of our clients are multi-banked and know they can go to one bank for transactions, another for private equity and another for their serious money in wealth preservation. But there is probably only one bank that they will have that emotional conversation about family business, next generation of succession – the more emotive aspects of what wealth really is."
"My definition of success is when we have relationships like that. So when we have clients coming in to talk to us about those difficult sensitive issues, that they may not really want to discuss, that’s the great strength of the UK business – where you meet someone whose grandparents and great grandparents were still clients of the bank, that’s a powerful thing. That’s what we want to be building."
There is opportunity in consolidation
The concept of size being crucial for a private bank to remain sustainable has come to the fore at this time, and this brings to question how far a private bank can go to remain personal and customised in their client approach. Blake, in his collected demeanour, responds to this notion with cordial acceptance of the need for scale, but also defended the opportunity for pure-play institutions to remain strong contenders.
"Ofcourse you need to be of a certain scale, and some of the smaller banks may suffer in the time forward, but I think beyond that, I don’t think the answer is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. I think there is a space for universal banks, and also specialised pure-play banks who can provide a higher level of personalised service for the wealthy."
"I see more opportunities than challenges, and I see this for consolidation as well actually. Especially in this region, I think those banks who remain committed to Asia over the course of the next five years, will be net beneficiaries of all the changes happening."
What happens in the future, especially in conjunction to the next generation and their varied preferences and ideals, leads to an ambiguous future. Nonetheless, as the former diplomat ascertained, a dedication to help customers answer those difficult questions of the future for their wealth preservation, the transition of their family business, and thereby creating a long-lasting relationship with the clients across generations, is what Blake expresses as the most important focus of the Coutts ideology, and their golden bullet for success.