Elegant offices on the 38th floor of the new California Plaza building in downtown Los Angeles mark Swiss Bank’s entry into the highly competitive arena of private banking for rich people here.
The Los Angeles operation, which is managed by Sandra M. Willen, is one of three offices opened recently by the big Swiss bank to cater to individuals with at least $1 million to invest. The other offices are in New York and San Francisco.
Willen spent almost eight years in the private banking division in the Los Angeles office of Wells Fargo, a San Francisco-based bank, before joining Swiss Bank as a vice president last February. She is a chartered financial analyst and a graduate of Tulane University’s Newcomb College.
Another former Wells Fargo banker, Craig A. Madsen, is in charge of Swiss Bank’s new push into U.S. private banking. Madsen works in the bank’s U.S. headquarters in New York.
He was manager of the personal investment division at Wells Fargo when he left about a year ago to join Swiss Bank. Madsen is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and has a law degree from John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
The Los Angeles and San Francisco private banking offices each have five professionals, and the New York office has about 20. The bank plans to expand its private banking network to several other major cities next year, Madsen said in a recent interview.
Most major U.S. banks and many U.S. branches of foreign banks offer special services to customers with lots of money, but Madsen said the California market offers big opportunities for its newest entrant.
“There’s a hole in the California market, and obviously we think we can fill it,” he said.
Swiss Bank stresses its ability to develop a truly global investment portfolio for its customers as a result of its worldwide network of analysts and economists. The bank invests in U.S. and international securities, money markets, gold and eight to 10 currencies.
About one-half of 1% of U.S. households have $1 million or more to invest. Competition for these wealthy customers has been fierce among big banks, particularly since last year’s stock market crash sent many fleeing from the securities markets.
The attempt to tap the “flight to quality” with its global investment pitch and Standard & Poor’s AAA credit rating is behind Swiss Bank’s push into the market.
Willen said one of the bank’s first tasks is persuading American investors that foreign markets are not inherently riskier or more volatile than U.S. exchanges, a task made easier after as a result of last Oct. 19’s stock crash.
“We, as Americans, are just making a mistake in not looking at what other markets around the world can do for us,” she said.