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“I’m a corporate banker in Asia. My clients can be nightmarish”

corporate banker

When I graduated in Singapore about six years ago I wanted a role where I could start to build my own set of clients while I was still a junior. I couldn’t do this in private banking (it takes too long to become a proper RM), nor in investment banking (your clients change from deal to deal).

Corporate banking seemed like a better bet for me as a grad. It offered the chance to foster long-term relationships, and the bank I ended up joining gave me clients to manage after less than two years of ‘shadowing’ a senior banker. I was only in my early 20s and I was already in the game.

Another way of putting it is that I was thrown into the deep end. Yes, knew the basics – I understood products like cash management, trade finance, asset-backed finance, FICC and equities – but I didn’t really know how to handle clients on my own.

To make matters worse, the industry sector I was covering in Singapore started to experience a downturn just as I became a stand-alone banker. Many people think corporate bankers stroll from lunch meetings to golf courses as they schmooze clients whose businesses are ever expanding. This is not so.

At my first bank, many of my clients were struggling financially. A few of them had businesses that were on the verge of bankruptcy – and they owed my bank money.

The bank, a Malaysian firm, made its junior corporate bankers get their hands dirty. We had to call our clients directly and ask when they would be settling their debts. As a junior, I found doing this intimidating.

I was looking after small and medium-sized family businesses and many of my clients would get really emotional on the phone and promise they’d ‘pay us back tomorrow’. When the money didn’t arrive the next day, my boss would ask me to call them back again – it was a nightmarish cycle.

However, provided you can keep your job, you can learn a lot as a corporate banker during a downturn. Many of my counterparts didn’t experience what I did at analyst-level and now (as an associate) I think I’m better equipped than them to handle difficult client problems.

When I moved to my next corporate banking job – this time at a large British bank in Singapore – I faced a whole new set of challenges from my clients.

At my previous employer, I looked after one industry so I could build knowledge cumulatively. Now I was suddenly working across sectors – learning about each one took me a long time.

Moreover, I was now no longer meeting family-business owners; I was meeting regional CEOs of large companies. Don’t underestimate how different this kind of client interaction is. My previous clients only cared about their industry and competitors but my new ones want to keep up to date with macro-economic and financial trends.

I never know what questions they might throw at me each day. I try to read the financial news on the way to work and I have access to great internal research at my bank. But the difficulty is actually finding the time to read all the information you need to deal with client demands.

My large corporate clients also have very high expectations when it comes to everyday transactions – like FX and cash management. It’s vital to keep this kind of flow income going and keep clients ‘sticky’ to your bank.

But if mistakes are made, your clients might go elsewhere because the corporate banking market is very competitive in Singapore. Your clients have options, and this heaps pressure on you as a banker.

It also means you need to forge strong internal networks – never overlook the support staff if you’re in the front office. If there’s a problem with your client’s online banking, for example, you can resolve it far quicker if you actually get on with the people in your tech team. Internal relationships can make or break your relationships with clients.

The Holy Grail for a corporate banker is, of course, showing initiative to your clients and not always being reactive. In other words, how do you create an opportunity for them that they never thought of before? How do you create a new ‘need’ for them that will open up new business for your bank?  For example, changing the capital structure of their company or suggesting a more innovative product.

This is a huge challenge and I’m not there yet. But it’s one of the reasons I’m staying in corporate banking despite the constant ups and downs I have with my clients.

Lucy Ng (we have used a pseudonym to protect her identity) is a corporate banker at a UK bank in Singapore.


Image credit: kirstypargeter, Getty

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