Sergio Mitsuo Vilela: “Curling was love at first slide”

Wealth Planner Sergio Mitsuo Vilela was born in Brazil to a Japanese-Brazilian mother and a Brazilian father of Portuguese and Belgian descent. A lawyer by training, he is also a samurai fencer and a member of the Brazilian national curling team. Wait, what? Brazil has a curling team? All of this makes him a typical Brazilian. Not convinced? We explain how.

Friendly and gregarious, Sergio Mitsuo Vilela exudes a natural Latin American warmth that immediately makes one feel welcome. And thanks to his fascinating family background and his wide range of personal interests that include samurai fencing, curling and Portuguese wine, he’s a lively and entertaining conversation partner.

A typical Brazilian

Brazil’s population is a vibrant mix of descendants of indigenous people, European settlers and slaves – a legacy of its complicated colonial past. But one little known fact outside of Brazil is that it has the largest Japanese community – approximately 2 million people – living outside of Japan. “In fact,” says Sergio, “São Paulo has more sushi restaurants than churrascarias (Brazilian steakhouses).” How did this come to be? In the early 1900s in order to develop its agricultural base, the Brazilian government actively encouraged European and Japanese immigrants to settle in Brazil in exchange for land.

Four generations ago, his mother’s family migrated to Brazil and settled in a Japanese enclave within the state of São Paulo. On his father’s side, Sergio’s Portuguese and Belgian ancestors were drawn to Brazil by the gold rush in the state of Minas Gerais during 1700s, and now run a logistics business and import wine from Portugal. “If you are born on Brazilian soil, you are Brazilian regardless of your family background. Even though genetically we are very mixed, we all call ourselves Brazilians. And I am a proud product of that.”

Samurai wisdom

One way Sergio remains connected to his Japanese heritage is through kendo kenjutsu, more commonly known as samurai fencing. Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather were kenjutsu teachers. So naturally, Sergio picked up samurai fencing as he was growing up and is now passing on this family tradition and its teachings to his young son, who is adept at handling two little bamboo swords of his own.

 

Once you’ve won the client – that is the time to really deliver.

But can Japanese samurai wisdom also be applied to one’s professional life? “Of course,” he says, “One of the teachings from my Sensei Jorge Kishikawa that always sticks with me is ‘Katte kabuto no o o shimeyo’, something like “after the victory, tighten the strings of your helmet.” This is also true in business, he continues, “Just because you’ve acquired a new client doesn’t mean you should relax, otherwise you may underperform and the client leaves. So once you’ve won the client – that is the time to really deliver.”

Planning for the next 200 years

Sergio’s friendliness and his samurai work ethic come in handy when discussing complex wealth planning topics with his Latin American clients. Though his background is in International law and business administration, he recognises that lawyers often like to use big complicated words. So he makes a point of speaking to clients in plain Portuguese (or Spanish, or English, or German).

But it’s not always easy. When tackling sensitive subjects like succession planning, he says that clients – particularly Latin Americans who don’t like to think about their own death – often make the mistake of thinking ‘I will not die tomorrow’ and tend to put it off. To get them to come around, Sergio begins by telling clients: “Don’t worry, you are not going to die – you’re actually going to live until you’re 200. But you may have an accident and you may become incapacitated. Your family will need your signature for all sorts of things that you won’t be able to deliver.”

He then carefully walks clients through a series of questions to gently present them with the hard facts that could hinder their ability to protect their families. “Do you know how long it takes for a probate to go through in your country? Did you know that dealing with this bureaucracy can take years – time that your family will be unable access your assets?” And then all of a sudden, clients will experience that aha moment when they understand the importance of planning ahead. “Hearing my clients say: ‘I finally understand what my adviser was trying to tell me and now I have the tools to make an informed decision’ gives me the greatest sense of fulfilment,” he says.

Uniquely Latin American clients

Red tape is certainly one aspect of daily life that most Latin Americans are all too familiar with. But how else do the needs of clients in the region differ from those in other parts of the world? “Unfortunately, Latin America has serious problems with security and personal safety,” Sergio explains. “So it’s not uncommon for high and ultra-high net worth individuals there to have kidnapping insurance, which is not something you would normally come across in Europe.”

Latin Americans value the international experience as a part of our education.

Another common requirement for Latin American clients is foreign exchange protection. This is largely because Latin Americans lead very international lifestyles. “It’s not uncommon for an Argentinian family to have a house in Uruguay, or for a Mexican family to have a child study in the US,” Sergio explains. “So even though they conduct their daily lives in reais or pesos, they have exposure to other currencies through their investments or family relationships. Some might even say, ‘Currently, I live in Brazil, but that may change.’ Such mobility is also a cultural thing. Latin Americans, we value the international experience as a part of our education.”

International relocation

It is this sense of adventure and curiosity that brought Sergio and his wife (another typical Brazilian with Italian roots) to Switzerland. They had always wanted an international experience, so when his wife’s employer offered her an opportunity to relocate to Zurich, they didn’t think twice.

When it came to settling into their new home, Sergio admits, “Well, I made the same mistakes some of my clients make and didn’t plan ahead. Relocation is the most difficult decision that you can take in your life, and I have the personal experience to confirm that.” He initially thought that he would not be allowed to work in Switzerland. So he enrolled in a PhD program in International Tax Law at the University of Zurich and started taking German lessons. But upon further research, he discovered that he could have his Brazilian law degree validated in Portugal, which in turn allowed him to practice law in the European Free Trade Zone. This eventually led him to his position as a Wealth Planner at Julius Baer.

Relocation is the most difficult decision that you can take in your life, and I have the personal experience to confirm that.

Curling in the tropics and Olympic aspirations

One might guess that Sergio got his first taste of curling when he arrived in Switzerland. In fact, it happened years earlier in Brazil. So why does a tropical country have a national curling team, and how did Sergio end up on it? “Curling is the most watched winter Olympic sport in Brazil,” he explains.

It all started during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver when, after the daily novela (soap opera) watched by the majority of households ended at 10:00 pm, the country’s largest network would switch to live coverage of the Games. Given the time difference, curling was usually on during that time slot. Brazilians were fascinated by the strange sight of four players sliding around on ice, frantically sweeping and yelling like crazy. “It was an instant hit!” he proclaims.

Sergio Vilela training outside of Zurich.

Taking advantage of the curling craze, a personal care brand sponsored a temporary ice rink at a São Paulo mall and flew down several Olympic curling players to meet their Brazilian fans. Sergio, along with thousands of other Brazilians, stood in line for six hours for a chance to throw two curling stones. “It was love at first slide and I promised myself that I would play the sport someday.” Fast forward three years when Sergio and his wife relocated to Zurich, he jumped at the chance to take up curling again. “Before we actually found our apartment here, I was already enrolled in a beginners’ curling class,” he laughs. Six months later, he contacted the Brazilian Ice Sports Federation and was invited to try out for the seleção (national team).

On the possibility of representing Brazil at the Winter Olympics, it’s still an uphill battle for the team. Sergio’s teammates are scattered throughout Canada, Europe and Korea, so they rarely have a chance to practice together, and the rules to qualify for one of only ten Olympic spots favour past World Champions – meaning the traditional curling powerhouses. “But we’re working on changing that so that other countries have a fairer shot at qualifying."

Working in private banking we have the privilege, but also the responsibility, of touching people’s lives.

A life between two continents

Where will his international career take him next? Who knows? But for the time being he feels fortunate to be working in Zurich. “Working in private banking we have the privilege, but also the responsibility, of touching people’s lives. We’re not just discussing their finances, we’re discussing their lives.” His job takes him back to Brazil to meet clients at least four times per year, and he jokes that with some careful planning, he gets to see his parents and extended family more often than when he was actually living there!

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