HONG KONG, Oct 9 Swiss asset manager Bank Sarasin&Co BSAN.S aims to expand st

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HONG KONG, Oct 9 (Reuters) Swiss asset manager Bank Sarasin&Co aims to expand staff in Asia by up to 20 percent over the next three years, driven partly by customer growth among Indians living abroad, its regional chief said on Tuesday.

While not ruling out acquisitions, Kenneth Sit, Asia chief executive officer at Sarasin Rabo Investment Management Ltd, said the company is focused on organic growth for now.

In Asia, the bank employs 200 and expects to grow that by between 20 and 40 people over the next three years, he said. It had nearly 1,200 staff globally at the end of the first half.

''A lot of it depends on the kind of quality people we can get from the market,'' said Sit, who has himself been a part of the rampant turnover seen in recent years in Asia's fiercely competitive wealth management sector, having joined Sarasin in December after 16 years at HSBC Holdings <0005.HK>.

Globally, overseas Indians have an estimated US$1 trillion in assets, and wealth managers in Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong and elsewhere have been stepping up efforts to help manage it.

Sarasin has had a team for 10 years in Hong Kong serving the non-resident Indian (NRI) community, and is building a similar group in Singapore, Sit told the Reuters Wealth Management Summit on Tuesday. Sarasin also manages NRI funds from Dubai.

''It's growing faster than the average,'' Sit said of the bank's NRI business.

Globally, Sarasin's assets under management totalled 84.4 billion Swiss francs (US$71.1 billion) at the end of the first half. It aims to manage 100 billion francs by the end of 2010.

''The NRIs in Singapore belong to the new rich, I would say -- they're people who are younger, entrepreneurs, maybe from IPOs,'' Sit said. ''The NRIs in Hong Kong belong to the older rich type of people who have been very well-established.'' ''Part of the real estate boom in Singapore is because of the money that has been brought out from India,'' he added.

Dutch cooperative bank Rabobank [RABN.UL] acquired a controlling stake in Basel-based Sarasin early this year.

The bank's Asia business is split evenly between Hong Kong and Singapore. The Hong Kong office serves mostly local clients, while Indonesians make up the biggest customer base in Singapore.

RICH AND RICHER Like its private banking rivals, Sarasin typically requires that its clients invest at least US$1 million -- with the expectation that they will add a further US$3 million over the next 12 to 18 months -- but also targets wealthier customers.

''The most optimal size, if I can could put it that way, is between $5 and $25 million,'' Sit said. ''These are the people who are more than happy to try to look at interesting ideas, who can diversify a little bit into hedge funds.'' Sarasin will continue to serve Asian customers from Hong Kong and Singapore, and has no immediate plans to try and penetrate restrictive local markets elsewhere in the region, Sit said.

''Singapore and Hong Kong will remain the focus of our Asian strategy,'' he said. ''We probably will look at the onshore banking centres at a later stage.'' He said the bank is expanding its teams to cover Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and eventually may look to serve Vietnam and the Philippines.

''Vietnam is growing very quickly. The Philippines has a lot of wealthy people there,'' he said.

The number of wealthy people in Asia -- people with more than US$1 million in financial assets excluding their homes -- grew 8.6 percent to 2.6 million in 2006, according to a report by Merrill Lynch and consultants Capgemini.

Of the four countries with the fastest-growing populations of high-net-worth individuals last year, three -- Singapore, India and Indonesia -- were in Asia, the report said.

Robust wealth creation in the region has seen newcomers such as Swiss rival Julius Baer set up shop in Asia, while established players like UBS , Citigroup and HSBC have been beefing up regional private banking operations.

REUTERS SR PM1450

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