Catherine Low began her banking career more than 20 years ago by working in the back office – now she’s in charge of hundreds of staff, from operations to sales, as Asia head of trade and commodity finance (TCF) and structured export finance, and as country manager for Singapore at ING Bank.
Low, who sits on the executive committee of the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore, joined the Dutch bank in 2003, having worked in TCF roles at Standard Chartered, Raiffeisen Zentralbank, BNP Paribas and Fortis.
She chatted to eFinancialCareers about how a grounding in the back office helped to kick start her managerial career and why ING has been hiring in TCF in Asia.
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Tell us about your early career
I spent my first four years in various back-office operational roles, from financial-markets settlement to international payments. Then I moved into trade and commodity financing – first as a credit analyst, then moving into sales-cum-relationship-management roles, progressing from junior to more senior positions.
How did you make that move without a sales background?
While I may have started behind my sales peers, my ops background meant I caught up quickly and ultimately it helped me get promoted. My time in ops helped me provide a quality service in sales because I could understand the bank’s end-to-end capabilities and view our products and services more holistically. I also understood the importance of team dynamics – having great sales skills alone isn’t all it takes to succeed.
Can back office professionals make a similar career change these days?
It appears to be less common now, but if there’s interest in moving from back office to front, the experience in ops can be very helpful.
Have you been hiring in trade and commodity finance?
Over the past six years ING’s trade and commodity finance business has grown into a top-three player in Asia – the challenge now is to stay there. We’ve expanded the Asia TCF team by about 30% in the past two years and now have about 40 people – here in Singapore and in Hong Kong and Shanghai. And we continue to hire across all areas of TCF – not just in relationship management, but also in areas like risk management and document-trade processing. It’s a growing sector – we are always looking for talent.
Has TCF become a more attractive career since the financial crisis?
More and more people are attracted to working it in these days compared to when I started my career, when it wasn’t considered very glamorous. Now it offers good career opportunities. ING has been growing the business and the teams steadily for the past ten years; there’s no hire-and-fire mentality. In good or bad times, people still need to consume and trade raw materials, which need to be moved from producers to consumers – that’s what underpins the sector.
Are you hiring new graduates straight into TCF?
In the past grads would first be hired into generalist corporate-lending roles in banks, before they move into specialist TCF positions. Now we’re opening up some TCF jobs within our graduate-traineeship programme in Asia – we’re a large enough team to invest in growing our own talent. But I look at grad recruitment from a broader perspective: if a talented new hire chooses to join another team within ING afterwards, then the bank as a whole has still benefited.
What do you look for in a new recruit?
While you need technical knowledge, your attitude and your willingness to learn are more important. You also need a genuine interest in international trade and a passion for helping your clients grow their business and for building the best TCF practice in the industry. When hiring for managerial roles, I look for people with soft skills, such as leadership skills, who can take a strategic helicopter view of the business.
What’s your approach to conducting job interviews?
In my experience, candidates who do very well at interviews aren’t always the ones who end up being top performers on the job – having a good job fit with your areas of strength is more important to success. An interview is not always indicative of that fit. I like to probe for any signs of evasiveness and ask for very specific examples to back up any comments.
To what extent have banks in Asia improved gender diversity in their workforces during your time in the sector?
Much has improved in terms of workplace diversity in banking since I started my career more than 20 years ago. This is mainly because there is a conscious effort to promote workplace diversity, especially building a pipeline of women to take up senior positions. Personally, I've never encountered a glass ceiling in my career, but where the industry does still have some gaps regarding gender diversity is at board level.
You volunteer to help foreign workers in Singapore and victims of domestic violence. Are more junior finance professionals giving enough back to the community?
I think volunteering and charity work are actually more important to the younger generation. In fact corporate social responsibility is now an important factor in attracting young people to an organisation.