(Duration of Swiss currency crisis corrected in 23rd paragraph)
Kim Fournais and Lars Seier never imagined what was to come when they founded the investment manager Midas in the 90s. Named after the legendary Greek king whose touch turned everything to gold, the business set out with just one employee and DKK 500,000.
Today, Saxo Bank, as the company changed its name to in 2001, has about 20 office around the world and 1,500 employees. This is an exceptional case in Danish entrepreneur history, as only one other company has rounded 1,000 employees since the mid-90s.
"I actually think it's a really good story," says Kim Fournais, co-owner and CEO of Saxo Bank, greeting AMWatch's reporter at the bank's gigantic headquarters in Hellerup with a view of the Turborg Harbor in northern Copenhagen.
Part of the solution
The occasion is that Saxo Bank is turning 25 years this month. The anniversary was celebrated this weekend with a big party at a castle in Roskilde, where all 1,500 employees are invited. Although Saxo Bank is an entrepreneurial success, the bank has received some criticism for being mostly reserved for wealthy customers. At the same time the bank has made some enemies by having previously supported the Danish political party Liberal Alliance with the agenda of pushing Danish society towards a center-right alignment. All in all, in combination with some provocative statements in the media, the bank has become something like an arch nemesis of the Danish political left. Overall it bothers Kim Fournais that Saxo Bank's solutions and services, which have won several awards, are often eclipsed by this reputation.
"If you look at the platforms we offer and our prices. If you think about the jobs we have created, the fintech we have developed, then it would be nice if more people understood that we are part of the solution rather than the problem," Kim Fournais says.
More than just a trader bank
Kim Fournais acknowledges that the political comments have contributed to the bruises received, and some were even well-earned. However, he says that the political comments have not always been so important in terms of telling Saxo Bank's story. The goal here is to push the bank and its solutions into the limelight. It is important to Kim Fournais to emphasize that Saxo Bank is not just a bank for traders, which typically have a short investment time horizon, trade often, and gear the investments. Normal investors with a longer timeframe are becoming still more prevalent in the bank, the CEO says.
Saxo Bank's vision is, in Fournais' own words, to "democratize the capital markets", in the sense of making global asset classes, including equities, bonds, commodities, and precious metals, which have previously only been available to larger financial institutions, easily available on technological platforms to many more people, in a user friendly manner, and at low costs.
"This is the business model that we have had since the 1990s. When we celebrate our 25 anniversary, we do it as Denmark's first fintech company," he says, adding that it is possible to invest for as little as DKK 10,000 at Saxo Bank.
"We don't have our own solutions to push forward. We just want to provide the best solutions from the best providers globally and shape the best technological vessel for the customers so that it fits their interests," he says. Saxo Bank has a number of investment solutions that offer digital asset management in collaboration with large financial institutions such as Blackrock and Morningstar, he adds.
More bumps in the road
Saxo Bank's first 25 years have not been free of cuts and bruises – or "bumps in the road" and "a head wind", as Kim Fournais likes to call the challenges.
The first time it happens is in 1996 when a young Kim Fournais goes on air with DR TV journalist Jens Olaf Jersild on the critical program Rapport, focusing on some of the then newly started investment managers. In addition to Midas, there was Bernstein & Co, which had to leave Denmark the day after the TV program after having been caught using highly controversial and aggressive sales methods.
Although authorities never found any tangible points of criticism on Midas, the TV appearance still had consequences.
"It was a media show that made us known to the public, but more notorious than famous. I still think it was a very unfair mix and presentation, to be honest," says Kim Fournais.
"We were the first to get the Danish Financial Supervisory Agency (FSA)'s approval to operate an investment manager, before anyone else. There were 179 applicants – and 30 who received the approval, but we were the first. But the entire device of the TV program was that we were bastards who needed taking down a peg or two."
He adds that Saxo bank has always insisted that "things can be done smarter and better for the customers, and that naturally also means that others have been interested in pushing back a bit."
Annoyed with the law of Jante
Kim Fournais names the TV program as one example of how Saxo Bank through the years has been subjected to the law of Jante – or "tall poppy syndrome", a mentality that is deeply ingrained in older Danish and Nordic culture and shuns individual achievements and success as inappropriate and selfish.
"I have never met a single person who actually knows what we do and doesn't think it's smart. 'Is there really a Danish company that is this global,' people in London ask. We have paid a couple of billions in DKK in taxes over the past few years, so it's not like we are a huge burden on Danish society," Kim Fournais says with a smile.
"We employ happy and satisfied people. They aren't chained to their desks after all. We have more than DKK 100 billion in deposits which people have deposited of their own free will. It annoys me sometimes that the law of Jante is so prevalent," he says.
However, he emphasizes that the company is not in the same place as in 1996 when the TV program aired on DR about the so-called boiler room brokers.
"I think people realize somehow that if we weren't alright, we would be behind bars. Then we wouldn't be able to keep running a regulated banking operation," says the Saxo Bank CEO, who later meets opposition from a completely different side.
The financial crisis lasted 15 minutes
Throughout the 00s, Saxo Bank grew rapidly, but like so many other finance houses, it was hit by the financial unrest in the late 00s.
When Lehman Brothers collapsed nine years ago, the subsequent crisis knocked down several Danish banks. 2009 was a bad year for Saxo Bank, but already in 2010 and 2011, the bank is back on its feet.
Saxo bank's real financial crisis came six years later when the Swiss central bank cut ties with the euro currency. "Our financial crisis came on Jan. 15, 2015, it lasted 15 minutes, and we lost EUR 100 million," says Kim Fournais.
The basic problem was that people had geared their investments, meaning that they had invested more money than they had placed for security. On a normal market this would not be a problem because Swiss francs had only fluctuated slightly. But the exchange rate rose by 40 percent that day, Kim Fournais recalls.
"If you were on the wrong side of the market that day, which many were, you had suddenly lost much more money than you had placed for security," he says.
"There were customers on our platform trading in Swiss franc, and suddenly their security was gone. Plus a lot more. Suddenly the customers had no means of paying it back. That meant that we had to write off the entire loss that our customers had."
While the Danish FSA has said that Saxo Bank handled everything according to law, the bank has lost some cases in Switserland and Great Britain.
Not retiring to a tropical island anytime soon
Since the big loss in 2015, the bank has, however, once again found foothold, and could recently write DKK 229.5 million on the bottom line for the first half of 2017.
Perhaps a good time for Kim Fournais, who turned 50 last year, to retire?
No, not at all, says the CEO.
"I have been here for 25 years. It's not likely that I will be here for another 25, but I have no intention of leaving anytime soon. That's because I like this. If it was only a question of when I could retire to a tropic island, then I would more or less be able to do that now," he says.
"You're either in or you're out. I don't think there is a middle ground. I'm very passionate about Saxo Bank. We have a lot of exciting things going on. It's important for me to pass the baton in a proper way. I want to feel that my job is done, but also know that we have a candidate internally who is ready to take over."
Kim Fournais' business partner of many years, Lars Seier Christensen, withdrew from his operational position in Saxo Bank at the end of 2015, and earlier this year he sold his owner's share in the bank.
Asian company Geely Group will enter in his place, and will own about 30 percent of the Saxo Bank equities.
English Edit: Marie Honoré