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How to return from New York or London to China, and make it work

Xianghui Li

Xianghui Li, General Manager and MDof Canyon Partners China

Chinese financial professionals returning in swathes to their homeland is no longer a new phenomenon, but more interesting is what they do when they get back after years working overseas. How does their career develop? How do they adjust to the business environment in China? Can they get used to the culture?  Mr.Xianghui Li, general manager and managing director of Canyon Partners China, is one such a returnee. He got his MBA from the prestigious Wharton business school, and worked in the US for about five years for Silver Valley Capital Management Group before returning to China. He gives his views on these issues.

Q: You stayed in the US for about seven or eight years in total, and were doing well. Why did you go back to China?

A: China is developing very quickly especially in the financial sector. There are great opportunities for global investment firms to develop their business in China. People like me should be able to do well overseas, but there are additional huge advantages to coming back to China.

Q: Can you elaborate a bit what these additional advantages are?

A: It is about the global perspective and experience, and it does help a lot even if you do business in China, whether that’s local investment, fundraising, and/or cross-border investments. There will be huge advantages if you understand both the domestic market and the overseas market. If you only understand one part of it, you will miss some investment opportunities. I’m sure you will feel the same when you talk to other returnees who have similar backgrounds as me.

Q: When you first came back to China, did you feel anything you couldn’t get used to? 

A: No, I actually didn’t feel too much of it. Perhaps it’s because I used to work on both sides, and I personally think I’m quite good at adapting to new environments. But ultimately, every place has its own culture and rules. You can’t ask the environment to adapt to you. You need to adapt to the new environment.

Q: By coming back to China, do you think you have achieved more than if you’d stayed in the US?

A: I feel it’s hard to compare, because different people have different definitions of ‘success’. I believe that anyone can succeed in any environment as long as he/she possesses some key characteristics. For example in the US, there are many different ways to ‘realize your value’, so it’s important that you feel happy yourself.

Q: In that case, do you still advise young people to study and work abroad?

A: I feel it’s definitely helpful to go abroad for a few years. Look at today’s China; the age of young people going abroad to study is getting lower and lower. So it’s not a question of whether you should go abroad, it’s about when to go.

And if we look at financial education, I feel the local schools in China are still well behind the curve in teaching the students the most advanced financial concepts. Many stuff we teach in schools in China are not closely linked to today’s market. There have been improvements over the years, I believe, but I still hold the view that financial education in the West is more relevant and more to the point. If young people go abroad to study for a while, it will help them get a better position in the global competition in the future.

Q: Talking about studying finance, what advice do you have for today’s youngsters?

A: There’s already a lot of advice out there about how to study finance better. I just want to point out that finance is not just about maths and science. If you want to stand out in capital markets and in the investment world, you need to know a lot more in many other subjects such as history, philosophy and psychology. Multiple discipline is very important because it widens your scope and help you see more.

I’d also suggest young people carry on learning even after leaving school. The world is moving forward at a tremendous speed, so knowledge needs to evolve. One should not stop learning. I still keep learning although I am always very busy with my daily work.

Q: There are still many Chinese people overseas. Many of them want to come back, but don’t know when they should, or if they should at all. Do you have any advice for them?

A: Of course I can’t make decision for them, but my advice would be: just don’t hesitate once you’ve made up your mind. Life is short. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities to stay undecided. Chances simply slip through your fingers while you dither. So you just need to make up your mind. And once you do, don’t think too much about right or wrong. If you’ve decided to return, then return as quickly as possible, as there are so many opportunities in China; if you’ve decided to stay, that’s fine too, just stay on and enjoy your lives and develop your career abroad.

Q: How about those who have just returned? Any advice for them?

A: I mentioned about adapting to a new environment just now. Perhaps it’s more relevant to those who lack work experience in China. They probably need some time to adjust. As I said, you can’t change the environment, but you can adapt to it. To do this, you need to keep a calm attitude. There are people who returned from overseas thinking that they would be taken seriously or treated as an important figure, but in fact they might have overestimated themselves. There will be a contrast. So it’s important to manage your expectations well.

Q: What type of people does your firm recruit? Do you place a particular emphasis on returnees?

A: We are a global firm, so we prefer global talents, but we don’t confine us to the simple dichotomy of returnees and locals. I think this is out-of-date. We of course want talent which have global insight and experience, so we just select the best.

Q: One particular question about qualifications. You have an MBA, but you are also a CFA charterholder. How do you compare these two qualifications?

A: I think MBA and CFA are vastly different. It’s very difficult to compare. As a start, an MBA is a degree, whereas CFA is a qualification. Secondly, MBA requires you to study full-time, so you are likely to sacrifice more in terms of time commitment. Thirdly, MBA is about the learning of general business and management, many of the topics in the MBA education are not financial-related, while CFA largely focuses on the financial sector and capital markets.

If you don’t have a financial background, then a CFA provides a good opportunity for you to systematically study the subject of finance, and helps you to enter a new area. If you’ve learned finance before, then a CFA gives you a good summary of what you learned before and help to reinforce the knowledge. What’s more, a CFA provides a good platform from which you can develop your career.

It’s true that CFA is becoming more and more popular, as more and more people want to take it. I think it’s because the competition has massively intensified. As long as you work in one of the financial centres like London, New York, Singapore, or Hong Kong, the competition you face is already a globalized one, and you are competing against other very outstanding candidates on a global basis. If you don’t have this qualification but others have, then you’ll be put into a disadvantaged place.

In this sense, CFA qualification can be viewed as a stepping stone now.

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