BNP Plans U.S. Expansion With 100 More Wealth Advisers

BNP Paribas SA, the French bank facing a potential $10 billion U.S. penalty over its dealings with sanctioned countries, said it’s sticking with a plan to expand its BancWest division.

BancWest, which opened a private-banking flagship office in San Francisco less than two years ago, will hire almost 100 wealth-management advisers through 2016, Sofia Merlo, co-head of wealth management at BNP Paribas, said in an interview yesterday in Paris. That business’s current staff is about 200 with more than $7 billion under management, Merlo said.

BancWest operates “essentially in West Coast states and we also envision being in New York,” Merlo said. “Two years ago we were less well known, and today we manage to lure people from very big banks. We are hiring a lot.” She declined to comment on the U.S. case.

U.S. authorities are seeking a guilty plea and more than $10 billion -- a record criminal penalty -- over BNP’s dealings in sanctioned countries including Sudan and Iran, a person familiar with the matter said May 29. New York State’s top banking regulator, Benjamin Lawsky, has also threatened to suspend the bank’s dollar-clearing ability, a person familiar with the matter has said. The bank has said it’s cooperating with the probe.

BNP Chief Executive Officer Jean-Laurent Bonnafe, 52, said at the company’s annual meeting last month that it makes “no sense” to link BancWest’s activities to the probes. BancWest’s private banking is “on track” to meet 2016 targets, Merlo said.

Growth Target

Targets include increasing private-banking assets under management by 7.5 percent on average annually through 2016, the company said in March. BNP, which didn’t provide details of private-banking goals by country, said it aims to “ensure a strong development” in markets such as the U.S., Turkey, Morocco and Poland.

Unlike smaller French rival Societe Generale SA, which sold its Asian weath-management unit in March to DBS Group Holdings Ltd., BNP Paribas is hiring private bankers in Asia and the U.S. to keep expanding overseas. Last year, BNP Paribas was the euro area’s largest private bank by assets under management, ahead of Deutsche Bank AG, Germany’s largest bank, PAM Insight SA, a London- and Geneva-based research firm, said June 11.

The bank told shareholders at the May 14 annual meeting that a settlement with U.S. authorities could be significantly more than the $1.1 billion it had set aside for the case.

New Offices

BNP Paribas said in 2012 that it combined trust, brokerage and private-banking at its BancWest unit as it seeks to manage more money for wealthy people in the world’s largest economy.

Worldwide, BNP Paribas provides wealthy customers with investment advice and services related to business succession, retirement, real estate, art and philanthropy. The wealth-management business had 296 billion euros ($401 billion) under management at the end of March.

BNP Paribas, which started its U.S. wealth-management business from scratch, is “very pragmatic” in opening new private-banking centers at BancWest, Merlo said. “We need to be in the right place and find the good locations.”

BancWest has about 10 private-banking centers, including offices in Los Angeles, Denver and Pasadena, California. It plans to open an office in Palo Alto, California, and is looking to start wealth-management operations in New York in 2015 as it awaits local banking licenses, she said.

Separately, BNP Paribas said on April 2 it had decided to sell its Miami private banking unit while it remained “committed” to its BancWest franchise. BNP’s Miami unit mainly focused on offshore accounts.

(Updates with PAM Insight ranking of private banks in seventh paragraph, sale of Miami unit in last paragraph.)
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