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Culture shock came early to the daughter of Austrian-scientist father and a Paraguayan-physician mother. In primary school her parents moved their family from Central Europe to Central America. It was a sudden shift from the prosperity, refinement, safety and familiar language of her hometown Vienna to the mean streets of Managua (Nicaragua), with its poverty, civil war and foreign tongue. “Children of my age were out selling chewing gum to help support their families,” remembers Teresa Alton. “My friends and I played with spent bullets that were lying about in public. And I had to learn Spanish to talk to anyone outside my own family.” Overcoming those changes and challenges was difficult, she adds, but in time, it turned into an interest and an asset. “Because I’ve seen so many sides of life, I’m good at understanding and connecting with people from all sorts of backgrounds.”

Culture club
So many sides – indeed! By her late teens Teresa’s family had moved eight times, including stints in western Austria, another spell in Nicaragua plus stretches in Brazil, Panama and Paraguay. Every time it was a new school, new friends, new language or dialect, new everything. The merry-go-round continued to Austria and Liechtenstein for higher education, London for graduate business school and Zurich to enter private banking. First, not surprisingly, she served Austrians. Then, with her fluent Spanish and Portuguese, it was on to Latin Americans. In 2015 she came to Julius Baer to serve Asians. Isn’t all that a bit of a cultural mash-up? Well, she concedes, styles certainly vary from place to place. For instance, Latins tend to be more emotional and less detail-oriented than, say, Japanese. Europe has plenty of ‘old money’ while China is mostly ‘new money’. Some societies are transfixed by brands, others not so much.

Julius Baer is of just the right size. Small enough that neither the employees or the clients become just cogs in a vast machine, but big enough to enjoy cutting-edge expertise.

Teresa Alton

Connecting and bonding
But the wealthy anywhere are also remarkably similar, Teresa says, when it comes to managing their fortunes. “Nobody likes to lose money. Everybody wants to look after his or her family. There are common, human desires.” So it is with respect for the differences, coupled with awareness of the similarities, that she and her team of seven (multi-culti, naturally) approach private banking. Oh, and of course there is technical expertise as well. “I was fascinated by financial markets long before I studied for my master.” Nonetheless, she finds that the human aspect of wealth management comes first: listening, understanding, building a personal bond of banker and client. “In the end, my job is about using technical skills to reach quantified results. But we can get there only by building qualitative relationships. The soft skills count.”

What’s in it for her?
Aside from satisfying her fascination with finance and markets – which Teresa calls “dynamic but often irrational” – wealth management suits two other interests. One is accompanying people through key life events. “Each client has an individual story, and we private bankers are privileged to walk alongside that. We see their issues, their problems, not to forget their successes too.” There’s also the chance to apply her expertise in finer living: which fork to use, how to fold napkins just so, what cut of clothes to wear when, and so on. Prior to university she studied at an elite hotel-management institute, learning high society’s complex, unspoken rules – which many of her clients follow and expect the same of their banker.

Why Baer?
Culture is also the reason that Teresa came to and stays with Julius Baer. Not just the chance to immerse in the scintillating Asian societies of her clients, but to enjoy the bank’s own, distinct work environment. “Julius Baer is of just the right size,” she contends. Small enough that neither the employees or the clients become just cogs in a vast machine, but big enough to enjoy cutting-edge expertise and infrastructure. Most important to her is the cooperation. “People across the bank, front and back office, work as a team. We help each other.” While this might sound almost banal, it’s not. Many companies in many sectors, she acknowledges, are riven by internal competition, infighting and backbiting. Baer’s collegial approach can be a bit of a culture shock – albeit a positive one for employees, and surely for clients as well.