IF you are among a retail bank's important customers, chances are the bank will have a special counter you can use, without waiting in queues, or personal banking advisers to serve you. Many banks extend these privileges to holders of corporate and bigger savings accounts. The same applies at a higher level, where private banks operate. Some banks, notably Jardine Fleming, offer a form of private banking to clients investing as little as US$200,000 (HK$1.54 million), but real private banking only kicks in above the $1 million mark. The services vary, with the most valuable clients - the sums invested in Hong Kong can be more than $100 million - enjoying 24-hour access to senior executives and personal assistance in everything from buying works of art to arranging an offshore property purchase. Typically, clients will be looking to preserve their wealth, rather than searching for extreme performance returns. They might go to a Swiss bank because of the Swiss reputation for discretion and service. European banks have been around for so long they have a strong hold on the private banking industry, but they are being challenged at various levels by American banks. These banks have big investments in systems and expertise in the complex financial instruments so often demanded by clients. Private banks from Switzerland have a thick wall of client confidentiality enshrined in law and have built a reputation for efficient and sometimes innovative taxation planning. For many wealthy clients, establishing a clear path of inheritance is a priority. Offshore trusts come into play here as a means of protecting assets from sovereign risk, often in a tax-effective way. Some private banks such as Bank of Bermuda have developed a specialty in trusts and the complex legal framework in which they operate. As a general rule, the more money a client is investing in a private bank, or the more money the bank believes the client possesses, the greater the level of service. Even at the lowest level, clients can expect personalised investment portfolios, performance statements and regular investment updates. Many clients do not put all their eggs in one basket, opting instead to put a million here and a million there, adjusting the weightings between banks according to perceived performance and service. Some clients will prefer the integrated approach of the global full service banks which offer private banking as part of a much wider service. These banks have access to many of the specialist services the client will need in-house. Others will be drawn to the boutique-style private banks, which might only have 20 staff in Hong Kong although they have an extensive network offshore. Asian banks have generally not been successful in building a significant market share in the specialist business of dealing with high-net-worth individuals. Investing large amounts is a truly global affair and the international banks have an edge in the networks and expertise they can bring to the client. Asian finance is still young, however, and as Asian banks mature they are expected to woo large numbers of wealthy clients, some of whom will have grown up as customers.