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How cryptofinance is benefiting from the banking crisis

SEBA Bank's headquarters in Zug, central Switzerland. swissinfo.ch

Päivi Rekonen, president of SEBA Bank, says the recent banking crisis has not deterred the customers of her young cryptobank. Quite the opposite, she explains in an interview: requests to open accounts have actually increased.

Rekonen, 54, chair of the board of directors of SEBA BankExternal link, met SWI swissinfo.ch in the city of Zug in central Switzerland. Given that SEBA Bank, which employs about 120 people in five countries, is a cryptobank founded in 2018, the interview location might have been a garage or warehouse full of young IT specialists. But SEBA Bank’s Zug headquarters look more like the luxurious premises of a private bank than those of a tech start-up.

Originally from Finland, Päivi Rekonen holds master’s degrees in economics and in social sciences from the Finnish University of Jyväskylä. During her international career, she has held a variety of strategic roles in digital transformation, including at Cisco, Nokia, UBS, Credit Suisse and Adecco. Rekonen also sits on the boards of several international companies (Wipro, Konecranes, etc.) She has chaired the board of SEBA Bank since September 2020. DR

SWI swissinfo.ch: In your native Finland gender equality is exemplary. What about your country of residence, Switzerland?

Päivi Rekonen: Every country develops differently. In Finland we had a huge demand for labour in the period of industrialisation during and after the Second World War. As women were involved in this effort, they naturally entered the world of work. Legislation and the welfare system were also gradually adapted to support families, for example with crèches.

As for me, I’ve always worked in technology for large multinationals, predominantly in Switzerland. Twenty years ago I was very often the only woman. Fortunately, the situation has changed a lot since then. 

SWI: What do you like and dislike about Switzerland?

P.R.: My husband and I came to Switzerland many years ago. At first we thought we were just passing through, but we fell in love with this small, very international and dynamic country. And we decided to settle here. This may surprise you, but I can’t think of anything I don’t like about Switzerland.

SWI: The leaders of start-ups are often very young. But you and your CEO each have more than 30 years of experience.

P.R.: In our bank we are in favour of diversity, especially with regard to age. I have personal experience of developing and adopting a range of innovative technologies over several economic cycles. All these experiences, expertise and skills should help us make better decisions and avoid pitfalls. But beyond our differences we’re above all united by the same passion for blockchain and cryptotechnologies.

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SWI: SEBA Bank is a cryptobank. What does that mean exactly? 

P.R.: We are a Swiss bank similar to other Swiss banks. We have a banking licence from FINMA, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority. So all our activities are regulated and checked by this supervisory authority.

Our bank offers a wide range of services to private and institutional investors, such as asset management, credit cards and loans. But on top of all this, we have an infrastructure and expertise specific to digital assets such as cryptocurrencies.

SWI: What are the advantages of your specialisation in digital assets?

P.R.: An increasing number of investors want to invest part of their assets in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or ether. These investors can do it on their own, but it’s complicated. And it’s especially risky if digital assets are not stored properly: in the event of a hacking attack, investors can lose everything.

So our bank offers investors not just convenience, but also highly secure storage for their cryptocurrencies. We can also, for example, link a bitcoin account with other products such as credit cards. Lastly, many traditional banks use our crypto skills to manage their clients’ digital assets.

SWI: Your website is exclusively in English. Is your potential clientele exclusively English-speaking?

P.R.: English is the de facto language of finance. As our ambitions are global and we’re still a start-up, we’ve decided to use English as our sole language for the time being.

SWI: How is the company developing in Switzerland and abroad?

P.R.: We’re growing rapidly and are in the process of hiring new staff in Zug and abroad, in Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong and Singapore. Internationally, we’re hiring talent to strengthen our direct client contacts where the relevant jurisdictions allow that, as well as to carry out our operational and compliance activities.

SWI: The rise of blockchain and digital assets is very recent. Are you able to find enough employees with relevant training?

P.R.: About 20 universities and further education institutions in Switzerland already offer training in these areas. And according to the company Crypto Valley Venture Capital (CV VC), the companies that make up Crypto Valley [whose epicentre is in Zug] employ around 6,000 people; in addition, the Swiss blockchain ecosystem already has several unicorns – start-ups valued at more than $1 billion (CHF895 million).

Switzerland is therefore in a good position internationally in terms of talent. And if certain skills aren’t available locally, it’s not very difficult to attract them from abroad. Our staff represents about 20 nationalities.

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SWI: As far as your financing is concerned, how much have you already raised? Did you do this through an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) or cryptocurrency fundraising?

P.R.: We’ve raised around CHF230 million ($257 million) in three rounds. We took a completely traditional route by issuing shares denominated in Swiss francs. But in a second step, and to ensure a more efficient administration, we digitised our shares and placed them on a blockchain.

SWI: FTX, a major cryptocurrency exchange, has recently started a bankruptcy process. Could such a collapse have taken place in Switzerland?

P.R.: FTX, based in the Bahamas, was an unregulated organisation. Much has already been written about this organisation and the events that led to this situation. Regulation can certainly reduce risk, but in the business world there is no guarantee of success, especially if a business model proves unsustainable or unsafe.

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SWI: How are you affected by the recent failures of Signature Bank and Silicon Valley Bank and the acquisition of Credit Suisse by UBS?

P.R.: All our banking services have been running smoothly and our customers have not been affected. We’re even experiencing increasing demand for our services worldwide. For example, in all our offices – Singapore, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Zug – there has been an increase in the number of new accounts opened.

In addition, the bitcoin price has strengthened. This suggests that investors may be looking for alternative investments, i.e. outside the traditional financial system. As a cryptobank with more than three years of experience, we are well positioned to take advantage of these developments.

SWI: How does Switzerland rank internationally in terms of regulating cryptofinance?

P.R.: FINMA and other organisations have made big efforts to achieve a high standard of regulation in this new field. Swiss regulation really is at the forefront. What’s more, in the canton of Zug it’s even possible to pay part of your taxes in bitcoin.

The regulators in Singapore and Hong Kong are also very active, but I don’t think they should be seen as competitors. Ideally, we would like to see some international harmonisation of regulation in our industry. A first step would be to adopt common definitions for such fundamental concepts as cryptocurrency or digital asset.

Edited by Samuel Jaberg. Translated from French by Catherine Hickley.

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