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Are European entrepreneurs falling behind? Why is Asia a big competitor

The Zurich EY banking specialist Urs Palmieri wants to spread the tech expertise from Asia to Switzerland. Because in this country he misses a certain innovative strength and the courage to take calculated risks.

Mr. Palmieri, after seven years in Singapore, you have been back in Switzerland since the beginning of 2019, where you advise companies from the financial sector at EY. What are your first impressions of the “old” home?

Switzerland has at least 120 years of industrialization behind it and is one of the world leaders in many sectors. Nevertheless, it is worrisome to inquire about innovation projects in the Swiss financial industry.

Why?

Compared to the Asian markets, I miss the dynamism and the will to overtake the global competition on the left. I also noticed that the investment in new ideas is low and the willingness to enter into cooperation and alliances is subordinate. That does not bode well.

They exaggerate. What should be so much better in Asia?

It’s about a historical component: Asia has many regions where millions of people used to go fishing by wooden boat until 10 or 20 years ago.

“The desire to create wealth sustainably is correspondingly high”

Globalization and technological progress have catapulted these people, so to speak, overnight into a whole new world. You have thereby skipped several economic and technological development phases.

What exactly do you mean by that?

Let me give you an example: First of all, these people did not own a telephone at all and now a mobile phone with an Internet connection. This opens up completely new possibilities for them. Accordingly, their curiosity and their will are enormous, to develop further and to create sustainable prosperity for themselves. Accordingly, the pace in Asia is enormously high.

“People do everything to become middle class”

In countries like Indonesia, the Philippines or Vietnam, people are doing everything they can to move up to the middle class. That’s why there’s so much energy there, which is also noticeable in banking, forcing the various financial institutions to be agile and innovative. Only then can they meet the expectations of consumers.

Are you claiming that banks in Switzerland are not innovative?

The business model in Switzerland is based on traditional values: stability, reliability and excellence are in the foreground. With these values, the financial center has come through the financial crisis well. They are still important.

But entrepreneurship, courage to take calculated risks and innovation have fallen by the wayside – and that’s what more is needed in the present time!

That’s easy to say. Can you explain that in more detail?

Clear. I note that for many financial institutions, innovation per se is not anchored in corporate goals, in the “score card”. In other words, one is either negligent or has not even realized how existential today’s transformation and digital disruption are.

“Revolut is more customer-friendly compared to traditional banks and much cheaper”

This is where non-sector companies are heading, as the example of Revolut shows. The British online company, which in the broadest sense offers payment services, is faster, more customer-friendly and much cheaper than traditional banks.

Why do established banks leave more and more business to fintechs?

I think there are several factors that play into it: Bigger financial institutions have become so complex that they take much longer to implement innovations.

In addition, they often have legacy issues with their IT, legacy issues that they are pushing. Often the culture is not yet advanced enough to deal with the constant changes. That’s why they squint at fintechs and hope to take over the most successful sooner or later. It is also quite possible that they can not design a sustainable business case because they are often measured by short-term results.

“It does not take a lot of imagination to imagine Google & Co. in the financial business”

So it should come as no surprise if the banks face the same fate in the medium to long term as Nokia or Kodak, who were suddenly out of business because they did not recognize the signs of the times early. There are indications that banks – such as “Telcos” – will only offer infrastructure and distribution, while specialized companies such as Revolut or tech giants like Google, Netflix or Facebook will do the business.

It does not take a lot of imagination to imagine Google, Alibaba or Facebook in the financial business: The entry barriers are still high. But once the complexity of regulation is “broken”, such a scenario should not be far away.

Back to your job at EY and your experience from Asia. What are your next steps in Switzerland?

I would like to spread the tech expertise from Asia here in Switzerland and involve the various providers in the Wealth Management Ecosystem more closely. An example of such a “provider” is Singapore-based Canopy, which recently opened a branch office in Zug.

It is interesting to note that the company, which handles financial data processing for banks and their clients, has not expanded to Hong Kong, which would have been logical in itself, but to Switzerland.

Why?

Because Switzerland is still one of the most important wealth management markets in the world. That’s why Canopy wants to gain a foothold here.

What is this about?

Canopy extracts customer data from a variety of bank documents and can then aggregate and visualize them. This significantly improves reporting as a customer maintains multiple banking relationships and allows for more accurate analysis – such as on legitimate tax issues.

“The need to catch up in this country is urgent”

It is not ironic that such a service was first introduced in a young wealth management market such as Asia and is now entering Switzerland. In this respect, the need to catch up in this country is urgent, and the faster the banks recognize this, the sooner they will be able to successfully face the digital revolution. That’s just one example, there are many others.

The 40-year-old from Zurich, Urs Palmieri, has been working as an associate partner for the consulting firm EY in Switzerland since this year. In this function, he advises banks and other financial institutions on digitization issues and efficiency gains, as well as on the implementation of growth strategies. Prior to joining EY in 2016, he spent over seven years at the major Swiss bank Credit Suisse, with mandates from the Chairman’s Office of Urs Rohner, where he successfully implemented digital projects. At EY, he most recently worked in Singapore in Wealth & Asset Management Asean, serving banks in Asia.

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