Banca del Gottardo

Lugano ranks as Switzerland's fourth largest financial center after Zurich, Geneva and Basel. How is this possible for a city of only 50,000 inhabitants? It has a lot to do with its location. Remember the saying in real estate where the three most important factors are location, location and location? Well, that also applies to banking here in Lugano as the Italian border and wealthy Italians citizens looking to deposit money elsewhere are only a few miles away.

Founded in 1957, Banca del Gottardo (2005 revenues of $400 million) is a subsidiary of Swiss Life, whom I visited and received lackluster receptions in 1996 and 2002. Switzerland has three distinct regions (French, German and Italian) and the Italian part of the country is Banca del Gottardo's home turf. Over the years I reckon to have visited more than 300 banks around the world including16 in this land of watches and chocolates.

Downtown Lugano hugs picturesque Lake Lugano and a few blocks from the waterfront is where I go to find Banca del Gottardo's headquarters. Built in 1988, the six-story building is long-taking up a whole city block. Well-known modernist architect Mario Botta, who by the way was born here in Lugano, gets to take credit for the structure. I don't see any signs, plaques or logos on the building.

The main entrance isn't clearly marked so I mistakenly try entering through an employee-only entrance. Realizing my blunder I find the correct entry and immediately notice two things in the lobby: the smell of cigarettes and music being piped in. I check in with the uniform-wearing receptionist/security guards and explain sending a letter of introduction five weeks earlier to CEO R. Aeberli. While the receptionist makes a call to find out who's my contact person my eyes dart about the elegant lobby noting the six black chairs available for visitors to plop down on and a display of coins.

My visit turns out to be extensive and a lot of fun thanks to the hospitable Franco Rogantini, Head of Marketing & Communications. Roughly 600 people work here. Bicycle to work and employees enjoy covered parking for their bikes. Employees wanting to drive a car must first put their names on a waiting list and then pay a small fee for the privilege. Meeting rooms are numbered, smoking is allowed in enclosed offices and, there's no formal dress code-though appropriate attire is required when meeting with clients. Hot food is served in the partially-subsidized company cafeteria with executives having separate facilities. Its three minutes to the nearest freeway and a 15-minute drive to Lugano airport. There are no onsite recreational facilities but, a few miles away is an extensive company recreation complex, including swimming pool & tennis courts, that's free and available for use by an employee's whole family. Any other unusual employee perks? Employees enjoy special prices on banking services and discounts on tickets to certain cultural events.

The bank's corporate art collection is extensive, impressive and even includes a company-owned and run museum on the ground floor that's open to the public. Who's the museum's curator? None other than my tour guide; Franco Rogantini. How would one describe the bank's art collection? Primarily post-war and contemporary with 90% of the artists Swiss and 10% Italian.

Checking out CEO Aeberli's top floor corner office I don't see any plants/flowers or personal pictures, note the computer, hardwood floor and smoked glass desk. The table in the boardroom is elongated and seats 20.

Rogantini saves the best for last as we head to the bank vault. Over the years I've been inside quite a few bank vaults including SunTrust Banks (Atlanta, Georgia) where the secret formula for Coca-Cola is kept and, UBS (Zurich, Switzerland) where the more than 19,000 safe deposit boxes spread over three levels was quite a sight. However, the award for coolest bank vault goes to Banca del Gottardo. If you've ever been inside a bank vault it's normally sterile and filled with row after row of safe deposit boxes---with each box requiring two keys (one by the bank and the other by the box holder) to remove the box out of its steel cocoon. Well, in here architect Mario Botta decided to think outside the box-or in this case outside the vault. Entering, one sees walls of shiny sheets of metal--sort of like the grill on the front of an automobile. But, where are the safe deposit boxes and the two keyholes required to unlock the boxes? Here, the security guard enters the bank's code for your box in a computer and the wall magically opens to show the box. Trust me; this vault is a real beauty.

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