Working with technology shouldn’t make us less human. Hardware, software, and services can become obsolete in a matter of months, but the values on which we depend for our happiness – values like trust, sympathy, helpfulness – remain the same across generations. In this issue, Marco Comini and Gianmaria Bernasconi, founders of Aequitum, tell us how technology is transforming wealth management… and how they have made the human element pivotal again.
What’s true for wealth management is true for every business, including ours: technology is an enabling tool, but the medium is not the message. The goal is connecting two human brains – and hearts – in a fruitful exchange. At Ander Group, everything we do is geared towards that moment of connection.
Aequitum introduces a new paradigm for wealth management: state-of-the-art technology in the service of old-fashioned, human values.
Softly-spoken and with impeccable manners, neither comes across as a revolutionary– but from their elegant office in the middle of Lugano, Marco Comini and Gianmaria Bernasconi of Aequitum are preparing to turn the world of wealth management on its head.
“Wealth management is obsolete in its traditional sense,” says Comini, “because of technology.” He speaks from experience: he and Bernasconi notched up a combined total of thirty years as fund and wealth managers in the Swiss financial industry before leaving a primary private banking institution last year to start their own business.
“Technology has completely disrupted the banking sector,” agrees Bernasconi. “Banks were simply unprepared to pass the flexibility and low cost that fintech allows on to their customers. And in the wake of the 2008 crisis, banks have been concentrating so hard on capitalization and compliance that they have forgotten the real source of their revenue: the client.”
Enter Aequitum. It is not just a wealth manager; nor is it purely a family office. Instead, it offers clients global, low-cost, and transparent (and therefore lower risk) investment opportunities made possible by financial technology, with an added layer of professional services and family-centered advice.
“Families need to protect and pass on wealth – but wealth isn’t just financial,” explains Comini. “We see our role as a family counsellor, helping to preserve and build value through the generations by managing relations with financial institutions.” The name “Aequitum” reflects that role: nurturing mutual trust through fair dealing and equitable participation. “Human relationships will never disappear,” adds Bernasconi. “Financial advice is not like trading: it can’t be delivered by artificial intelligence, because its real value comes from trust, goodwill, personal knowledge. These are the foundations of our business.”
Such strong foundations support fast growth: in the few months since its launch, Aequitum has attracted the vast majority of the client base that Bernasconi and Comini served as bankers. “It is a relief, for them and for us,” says Bernasconi: “They know we are completely independent. We can be flexible, and can take full responsibility. In a bank, you don’t know whether the client is attracted by the institution or the individual. Here, we know it is because of the way we personally live up to our philosophy.”
That philosophy includes clarity in charging, with advice billed as a separate service, instead of the traditional reliance on commissions from transactions. “The whole focus of the relationship is trust. We can’t just say ‘Oh, this investment passes the regulatory profile for this client – I’ll recommend it;’ we need to make a personal commitment to understanding all the interests and needs of the family,” says Comini. “Our clients may soon be able to do all the transactional part of managing their portfolios themselves,” adds Bernasconi. “We don’t want to compete with the technology, but to add the essential human component, the emotional understanding.” The openness of Aequitum’s model also extends to the professional services it arranges for clients, who can meet directly with a trusted selection of legal and other experts to discuss their needs.
Leopards do not usually change their spots, so how is it that two highly experienced bankers have decided to overthrow wealth management’s traditionally high-cost and low-service model? Perhaps because of their pre-bank experience: both have degrees in Political Science – Comini worked in government and managed funds before turning to wealth management. Bernasconi was an intern in the Swiss diplomatic service and worked with NGOs before entering banking.
“I think it gives us a wider understanding of risk and value,” says Comini. “I have seen many technical experts in banking who are devoted to a particular fund or asset class, yet don’t really connect to the opportunity or risk it represents to the investor in the real world. Aequitum translates between those two world views.” Bernasconi takes this point further: “There is a lot more to the world than just money. As we saw in 2016, political, regulatory, macro changes can have broad repercussions – something that an investment algorithm knows nothing about. We bring that wider perspective.”
And when they’re not working – what inspires them? “It may sound strange,” says Bernasconi, “but we are inspired by the same thing outside the office as in it: family. We are both devoted to bringing up our children, passing on values and culture, giving them an education about life – normal, everyday life. And life isn’t just about money.” Comini adds, “I also love sailing, especially in the Mediterranean… but there I’m also thinking about the way families move into the future. It’s all about navigation, choosing a direction and keeping to it, adjusting for the changing winds and currents. And every boat handles differently, just as every family is different.”
Looking around the office as we speak, it is impossible to miss the colourful, exciting artwork that lines the walls, including a remarkable three-dimensional construction. Again, not what people expect from a solid Swiss financial institution… so is it simply personal taste? Or is there a message?
“We’ve come this far with just two people,” says Comini, “but we are going to grow. We want to make it clear that Aequitum is a philosophy that goes beyond just Gianmaria and Marco. We are building something for the future: a way of doing business based on relationships and trust. We want to inspire, not just by performance, but by ideas and vision – so the art reminds us that life is colourful and three-dimensional, with different facets, depending on which side you see it from. Like us, it is open… not flat.”