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Going the distance: how a Swiss ultramarathoner relates to running a wealth and fiduciary services group

Touching base with CEO of Alpadis Group Alain Esseiva on the challenges of going the extra mile - on your feet, or with clients.

There’s much to be said about the difficulty of keeping to a New Year’s resolution to run a couple of times a week – let alone completing a marathon. An ultramarathon – classified as any run that’s longer than 42.195 km – might just be unfathomable. 

That said, it’s part and parcel of Alpadis Group CEO Alain Esseiva’s annual calendar (save for this one), with some notable examples including a 250 km race across Antarctica, or the Atacama Desert, fighting the weather as much as physical exhaustion. These Herculean feats, however, belie the hours of training that underpin ultramarathoners’ achievements.

It’s something that Esseiva brings to his corporate life. Under his leadership, the Swiss-based fiduciary services provider has expanded via Singapore into other Asian hubs like Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia. His hands-on approach has also granted him a microscopic look into a diversity of cultural and business practices across the region, and a variety of industries from cutting edge to legacy. 

 We speak to him about ultramarathons as a sport, as well as how going the extra mile is vital to keep doing what he does.

(Related: Kwek Leng Beng on succession planning: “I can’t force (my children) to do things they don’t want.”)

Let’s talk about your ultramarathons. How did you get started?

From a young age, I learnt to love the outdoors. Being Swiss, I grew up surrounded by mountains and beautiful hills. However, though I would be very active hiking and running the mountains of Switzerland, I had never competed in an ultramarathon. A friend persuaded me to run a race in Vietnam a few years ago and though I was reticent – I had never run an ultramarathon and had little time to prepare – I decided to give it a shot. 

From that race on I was hooked! There are so many aspects of ultramarathons that I love. I was able to travel and see so many new and beautiful places, including some of the most rugged and remote places on earth. I love the simplicity of running a long ultramarathon – all I need is an 8kg rucksack and I just start running, sleeping in tents at night and repeating this for three to seven days. I also love meeting the other competitors, some of whom are very serious athletes, while others do this part time like me. They are all impressive and come from all walks of life all over the world. In Antarctica, there was even a blind competitor who competed. Truly awe-inspiring stuff.

Where is your favourite training spot?

I love running in the Singapore jungle, such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, MacRitchie Reservoir and the wider Central Catchment Nature Reserve, getting out into the countryside as much as possible. I also like to run through the streets late at night from one park to the next through the park connectors. Late at night, Singapore is beautiful and I feel like I am the only one in the world.

(Related: Nike releases the shoe that Kipchoge wore to break the two-hour marathon record)

What is your most memorable marathon experience?

Having ran so many races in so many countries around the world it is hard to specify any particular experience. I was once saved from a fast-flowing river in Mongolia by a Mongolian riding a local Przewalski’s horse. I have run in antarctica surrounded by penguins, and the Chilean people I met while running in the Atacama were some of the nicest I have ever met. 

I have been to Mongolia three times and I have to say the scenery and history of that country never ceases to amaze me. During the race (called The Gobi March) we would run through the Orkhon Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and end the race at the Ancient City of Karakorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, thought to be first settled in 750 and Genghis Khan settled in the city in 1220 from where he invaded China.

Alain Esseiva - Gobi March 2018 - Stage 2 #1

Esseiva at the Gobi March in 2018.

How do find the time? 

It is always possible to fit in the time. Pre-Covid, when I was able to travel to these races I would identify early in the year which I would want to attend so I would know in advance. I think that these events are very important for my professional success and so place a high priority on them. Running helps me focus and clears my mind, which makes me a better leader and professional when I get back to the ‘real world’. Spending five or seven days in the middle of nowhere without any phone or internet is amazing and helps me become a better person.

Does being an ultramarathoner help you do what you do? 

Of course.

Firstly, it relates directly to my own mental health and leadership. I encourage and urge all business owners and leaders to take on a hobby outside of work as it helps to build perspective and forces you to realise that there is a life outside of the company. 

We have grown Alpadis Group from a purely Swiss company, to one that has offices across Asia. We offer a range of services that allow companies to expand with confidence in the complex markets of Asia, and wealthy individuals to know that their wealth is protected for them and the next generation.

We are a truly independent company and I work with highly experienced colleagues who know the region and their subject matter areas inside-out. I have learnt to take a step back as a leader and provide guidance, support and assistance where necessary, but trust in the capabilities of others.

Furthermore, the perspective that ultramarathons give me provides me with a good sense of perspective, especially when it comes to understanding what is and isn’t important. The different countries that I travel to (or used to, pre-COVID!) allows me to see and experience different cultures and ways of life, as well as the vast beauty of nature. Things don’t seem so stressful when you have just come back from running alone in a large desert.

What are some challenges your clients face, and how do you solve them?

Over the past few decades wealth has increasingly moved to Asia and as such, there’s been a boom in the number of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) here. Unlike in the West, the wealthy families in Asia tend to be younger – first or second generation – and most tend to rely on the family business as the primary source of wealth generation. Over the next decade and a half, we will see an increasing number of matriarchs and patriarchs start to pass on, leading to a significant amount of intergenerational wealth transfer. 

So, succession and legacy planning will become increasingly important in the near future. Family offices that help with managing wealth transfer are also a lot newer here than in the West, which means it’ll take some time for people to get used to it. Now, many Asian family offices are nearing their first intergenerational wealth transfers.

This process is complex and daunting enough, but an added challenge is a cultural tendency to avoid open discussion on succession. Every family is unique and often come with their own internal dynamics and idiosyncrasies. So, it is important to have advisors that understand these norms and are equipped to handle and manage the different family members. 

That’s where we come in. Alpadis Group are a neutral service provider and we do not have any preferred strategy or product and are completely impartial with every client that we work with. We are not asset managers and we take our independence very seriously – we are independent from any financial institution, bank, service provider, or insurance company; and always work with our clients’ best interests in mind.

How has any of that changed post-Covid-19? 

The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for many HNWIs and they should really be re-examining or starting their wealth planning strategies. Firstly, while countries are beginning to open up, many of us have been on lockdown to some degree over the past few months and have had more time to think about our future and future plans. 

Furthermore, COVID-19 has unfortunately, resulted in a lot of disruption – or worse – for many people, especially for the older generation. The disease will have likely pushed the issue of wealth planning and succession up the priority scale and wealth owners will understand that in order to avoid a lot of headaches for their family members should the worst happen, a wealth plan is needed. 

Lastly, while the recession itself would not overly affect a wealth planning strategy, it is always better to have a plan in place so that should the worst happen – especially during a global pandemic – a lot of hassle, infighting and problems will be avoided. It is always better to have such plans developed and finalised during bad times as well as good.