[LONDON] The besuited millionaires chuckled and shifted nervously in their chairs as the co-founder of climate-change protest group Extinction Rebellion urged them to embrace their radical sides.
"Consider getting arrested, seriously," Gail Bradbrook told about 450 people at a London conference this month hosted by Weatherbys Private Bank, whose clients are drawn from among Britain's wealthiest strata.
She was preceded by speakers that included Cambridge University professor David Runciman, who advocated allowing children as young as age 6 to vote in U.K. elections. During breaks, guests could lug full jerry cans up and down a reception room to better appreciate the difficulties of those lacking access to clean water.
It was not your usual bank conference. There was little talk of investments, financial products or tax planning. Indeed, the subject matter was light years away from the lender's roots as a tony offshoot of a family-owned firm that has been at the centre of British horse racing since 1770. And that was partly the point.
"I didn't want us to be perceived as a sort of leather armchair, old pictures of horses and very much a sort of a bank of yesterday," chief executive officer Roger Weatherby said in an interview before the Oct 1 conference. "Our customers - and particularly the next generation of customers - will want us to be using our contacts, our profits and our wherewithal to help in whichever way we think is appropriate."
Such an approach is increasingly important in the once-staid world of private banking. With automation and consolidation on the rise, curating such events is a useful way for firms like Weatherbys to demonstrate the networking and advisory capabilities that justify their higher fees, while exposing clients to speakers and ideas outside their usual orbits.
Even as many European private banks are battling shrinking profits and declining inflows, Weatherbys' assets have continued to grow. Customer deposit balances increased 15 per cent to £816 million (S$1.37 billion) last year. Rival C Hoare & Co - which hosts similar forums for customers - also saw deposits rise, up 8 per cent to £4.4 billion in its latest fiscal year.
"There is often a closer synergy between the owners of private banks and their clients, with the emphasis on the relationship and being a trusted adviser," said Caroline Burkart, an associate partner at wealth consulting firm Scorpio Partnership.
Created in 1994, the bank is an offshoot of Weatherbys Ltd, which provides the British Horseracing Authority with its central administration, as well as services like pedigree research to a range of clients. Johnny Weatherby, Roger's brother, is chairman of the equine firm. There's also Weatherbys Racing Bank, which offers financial services to those involved in the sport.
The private bank's base is diversifying from its traditional clientele of genteel landowners, with professionals, executives and entrepreneurs making up the majority of new customers. The bank's first Creating the Future conference was held last year and struck a chord with clients. It resulted in two smaller events this year on education and the environment that preceded this week's gathering. Another targeting those age 20 to 30 is planned for early next year.
"It's hard to curate it, but it's a lot easier if you have a bank with a history of looking after families," said Mike Dickson, the author of Our Generous Gene, who helped Weatherbys organize the conferences. "They're much more concerned about issues that are going to affect their family, their children."
The bank says such engagement will be good for business - in the long term.
"We wanted to engage with all our clients, potential clients, introducers and friends on a very different level to that of a transactional banker," Mr Weatherby said in his opening remarks at the conference. "Transactions can be done by machines."