Expatica news

New Swiss bank pitches itself as digital, but not robotic

Switzerland’s shrinking banking universe has been bolstered by a new wealth management entrant, Alpian, which is aiming for the sweet spot between digital and human-centric services.

Alpian has just secured a Swiss banking license along with a CHF19 million ($20.5 million) capital boost from the Italian banking group Intesa Sanpaolo.

Looking at the bare figures, Switzerland could do with some reinforcements. The number of separate banking entities in the Alpine state has withered from 375 at the start of the Millennium to 243 in 2020.

Alpian’s niche is to connect mass-affluent investors (people with savings of between CHF100,000 and CHF1 million) with client advisors via digital channels rather than bricks and mortar.

The bank plans to start onboarding customers in the autumn and targets 5,000 clients plus a Zurich branch to add to its Geneva headquarters by the end of this year.

Swiss-Italian fusion

As I mentioned in a previous article about Alpian, the bank will concentrate at first on Switzerland and Swiss-based clients. Co-founder Gianmarco Bonaita believes this market is large enough for the bank to gain sufficient traction. Switzerland is, after all, one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

“This is a classic market for wealth management services. Once we prove ourselves in Switzerland we will analyse if the same client needs and conditions for our success could also be applicable to other markets,” Bonaita told me.

Should Alpian ever feel the need to spread its wings, there is one obvious channel – its new sponsor, Intesa Sanpaolo, the largest banking group in Italy.

Intesa Sanpaolo’s private banking operation Fideuram has spotted synergies with Alpian. Following the funding round, it now owns a “significant minority” stake in Alpian. “From the beginning, we have seen Alpian as a great opportunity to invest in the development of digital private banking,” says Fideuram executive Luca Bortolan.

Another minority shareholder is the Geneva-based Reyl private bank, which incubated Alpian before itself being snapped up by the Intesa Sanpaolo group.

But for the time being, Alpian is being left to its own devices in Switzerland, says Bonaita.

Evolving landscape

The Swiss banking landscape is not only changing in size – it’s also slowly evolving in nature.

Some of the more recent arrivals are focusing on digital technologies, such as FlowBank, not to mention four entities with fintech licenses. We have also seen the emergence of two new banks focused on cryptocurrencies and other blockchain-compliant digital assets. Rumours abound of more crypto financial service providers seeking banking licenses.

Traditional banks, like Credit Suisse and PostFinance, are also leaning more heavily on digital platforms as ATMs and bank branches close down.

But there is also evidence that digital bells and whistles alone might not be enough to make an impact in conservative Switzerland.

Robo-advisory services and digital Neo-Banks have gained a toehold but have perhaps yet to take off to the degree they would have liked. Part of the reason may be that the Swiss market is so small.

Bonaita is convinced that banking clients are craving a fusion of technology and the human touch.

“Digital wealth management services will become more relevant for mass affluent investors,” he said. “Digital adoption is only going to increase, particularly after the pandemic. But that should not exclude interactions with humans and their expertise. Client needs cannot be met with either purely technology-driven services or human-based banking.”