Switzerland is one of the world’s leading financial centres and is highly diversified with a high concentration of international and local financial service providers. Its financial sector is one of the most important sectors of the country’s economy, contributing 9.7 percent1 to its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020.
To 49-year-old Sharifah Ferdaus Ali Albar, Switzerland was the birthplace of private banking for the elites. She arrived in the country 17 years ago and currently manages up to 50 client advisors globally with close to USD 1 billion worth of assets under the management of her team in Geneva.
She shares with The Karyawan team on her profession as a private banker and the challenges she has faced while living in Switzerland.
Q: Could you tell us more about yourself and your family?
Sharifah: I was born into an Arab family and I am the youngest among two other sisters. My parents were rather protective of us girls but they were not too conservative. We were raised to be independent, value education and most importantly, be humble and respectful to all, especially the elders.
I was raised and educated mainly in Singapore, where I completed my Bachelor’s degree and pursued my Master’s degree in Financial Management a couple of years after I started my career.
I got married in 1998 at the age of 26. Now, I’m a mother of two children aged 19 and 22. My daughter is currently pursuing her second degree in medicine in the University of Aberdeen, while my son is serving his National Service in Singapore.
Q: What motivated you to join the financial sector? Why did you choose to be a private banker?
Sharifah: My father, who was an accountant by profession prior to being a businessman, had to deal with many bankers in the past. I would sit behind him in his car when he drove along Robinson Road and I would watch him passing cheques or arranging for a banker’s guarantee with bank officers, who were always well-dressed and eloquent. But it was my mother who later inspired me to work in the financial sector because she said she could see that in me. Fortunately, I have always enjoyed economics! Hence, I am very thankful for her support.
Q: What does your job entail and what is your typical work day like? Is working long hours a norm?
Sharifah: The banking industry has evolved over time. When I used to work as a Relationship Manager, I focused on providing banking services to clients and hitting my sales targets.
Today, I am managing a team running the Swiss Booking Centre in Geneva. The service extends to Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai and the UK. Due to the different time zones and working days, I am often busy replying to my emails, troubleshooting and assigning tasks to various departments and my team members. If calls are required to clear any urgent transactions, I will make sure to have a conference call according to the time zone.
As banks become the main spot for money laundering activities, checks and compliance with regard to anti-money laundering activities become a very important part of the business. This has kept me very busy of late.
Q: What kind of private banking products or services do your clients usually ask for? What are the challenges in dealing with these high net worth (HNW) clients?
Sharifah: Our banking product covers from a simple time deposit placement to a subordinated loan against say, a commercial property, to sophisticated banking investment products backed by a leverage portfolio.
Our services include dealing with the simplest things such as seeking a legal document update to handling sticky margin call situations. More importantly, on a daily basis, we ensure that the transactions required by or requested from the clients, say in the transfer of monies, execution of foreign exchange deals, disbursement of loans, etc. are completed efficiently and professionally.
Relationship management is delicate and bankers have to be completely professional. One has to be equipped with solutions, alternative solutions and manage expectations between client and the bank. Should something fall in between the cracks for one reason or another, there is no time to name and blame. We work as a team and crack on until the matter is resolved. With HNW clients, time is of the essence in providing solutions that meet their expectations.
Q: What made you decide to move to Geneva, Switzerland?
Sharifah: It began with a job opportunity to build my career 17 years ago and to sustain the lives of my growing children. If I had taken them back to Singapore during their middle to high school period, it would have caused a disruption in their International Baccalaureate (IB) programme.
Q: What were some of the challenges you’ve faced while living and working overseas? How did you overcome them?
Sharifah: Language and culture were the main challenges. In Switzerland, being late is almost unforgivable (while among the Arabs, the hours are totally elastic).
In my first week of work, I was watching my colleagues go out to lunch. Being new, I kept to myself in my corner. I got my first lunch ‘rendezvous’ three weeks later. I thought it was a cold and unwilling gesture to go for lunch with me, but no, it wasn’t! It was because of appointments that had filled up their calendar for at least one month ahead of time.
Swiss are very private and reserved people while I am outspoken and too witty sometimes. I had to speak slowly and use simple English to be understood. French is predominantly spoken in Geneva. There were times when I got lost in translation and ended up ordering something else. However, there will always be a friendly stranger to assist in translating the language to English.
Of course there were moments when I wished I was back in Singapore just because I would feel less alienated, blend in better, not be judged or just to get my frustrations heard in my best Singlish. But as I began to understand the lives of the people here, I learnt to adapt and began to go to places where the locals would do their shopping, walking, jogging, learnt the language and not take offence, but rather be part of the society.
Q: What are the pros and cons of working in this industry in Europe compared to Singapore?
Sharifah: Being an Asian in an European company based in Switzerland, I was a perfect fit for dealing with Asia Pacific, especially the Southeast Asian businesses. I had the ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude and got things done in a jiffy. The business numbers increased more than double as confidence surged and services improved.
Work-life balance is an important aspect in the Swiss culture. While I do not mind working overtime, it is limited when the rest of my colleagues have left for the day. I would make the effort to cover their work and finish up. Over the years, it became a compelling expectation of service so I had to work smarter and not just hard.
Q: How different is the culture and lifestyle in Switzerland compared to Singapore? Is it important to be fluent in French in order to integrate with the locals?
Sharifah: For the younger generation of Swiss, English has become part of their spoken language. But as it is not the first language, I often have to speak English simply and slowly. The same can be said when locals speak to me in French.
Their social activity often includes evening drinks, which for a non-alcoholic participant like me, would not get far in building further rapport especially when their English slowly starts to fade away as the evening goes by.
We Asians have ‘semangat bergotong royong’ (or spirit of helping one another) but this is much simplified here as the Swiss are very private. I miss that about us.
In Switzerland, women were allowed to vote when gender equality began in 1972. Compared to Singapore, it is still a conscious effort here.
Q: Is there a community of Malay Singaporeans among the 200 Singaporean households living in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Zurich?
Sharifah: Yes, most are in interethnic marriages. A few others are working in the embassy or Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Q: What have been the highlights of your career or life in Switzerland so far?
Sharifah: In terms of my career, my team’s motivation is proof that empathy in leadership goes a long way. Diversity in my team is complete with a single mom, a young mom, a gentleman and a hijabi. I capitalised on their assets, discovered their talents, built their skills and strengthened their confidence. My team today is made up of motivated personalities who take pride in their job. That is an amazing and incredible feeling to witness.
The highlight of my life in Switzerland is my kids’ successes, thus making it all worth the distance and effort. I encouraged them to break the boundaries and integrate European life into our Asian culture. I was very proud to see the enthusiasm in my son pursuing skiing as his main sport until he was made the team captain, representing his school. My daughter on the other hand, is autonomous and independent while pursuing her second degree. Her determination is masya’Allah. Both are amazingly responsible to their friends. And what keeps us close is being together, keeping one another in the loop about our lives and sharing our feelings openly.
Q: Do you have any advice for Malay/ Muslim youths who aspire to be a private banker like you?
Sharifah: Aspiration and determination are key in anything you do. Doing what you like will only make your journey pleasant but nothing is a breeze as each stumbling block diverts you to a path where your strength will be further discovered. It will be hard work and more hard work but most importantly, keep your values and professionalism intact. Education is key. Opportunity will knock when you are ready and prepared to face challenges. Nobody knows what to expect as the economy will change, regulation will create new policies and guidelines or even the stages in our life will shift. But face life challenges with stubbornness to make it work – never give up, believe in yourself and pray to Him!
Enter your dream with an attitude and make your way up with dignity. ⬛
1 finance.swiss. Updated figures on the Swiss Financial Centre. 2021, April 20. Available at: https://finance.swiss/en/news-and-events/updated-figures-on-the-swiss-financial-centre/
Nur Diyana Jalil is currently an Executive at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), managing its social media, events and publication.