How to break into the hottest sector in Asian finance with no experience

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Private banking Asia

Working in Asian private banking comes with its share of downsides. Compliance pressures are growing, weaker players are bailing out of the industry and compensation remains lower than in investment banking.

Despite this, headhunters say experienced professionals from other parts of financial services are keener than ever to break into private banking, a growth sector that offers stable jobs and long-term client relationships.

But while the ranks of private banks in Hong Kong and Singapore and littered with relationship managers who’ve made mid-career moves, achieving a successful shift isn’t easy. Here’s how to do it.

Prepare for a long slog

You will need to instigate your career change over the long-term – banks now need a lot of convincing before they’ll hire you. “Pre-financial crisis, during the booming job market, lots of private banks in Asia experimented with their hiring, but most of these people weren’t successful,” says ex-private banker Liu San Li, now head of banking at BTI Executive Search. “Now many banks are super cautious about people without wealth management RM experience – they hire case by case.”

Transfer internally from IBD

Most investment bankers who’ve moved into wealth did so within their current firms – and more opportunities are opening up as banks like Credit Suisse prioritise cross-selling IB products to private clients in Asia. “Private banks with an investment banking arm, such as Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, UBS, and Credit Suisse, are much keener on them compared with banks that don’t have an IB platform,” says Liu

Work in an investment function

“Moving to private banking is relatively easier if you’re an investment advisor, product manager, portfolio manager, or asset-class specialist advisor,” says former Merrill Lynch private banker Rahul Sen, now head of wealth management at search firm The Omerta Group. “Some of the skills are transferable.”

Show your sales skills

“It’s not easy to move mid-career into private banking unless you can demonstrate you have strong sales skills,” says Sean Kang, director of APAC wealth management at consultancy Scorpio Partnership. “That’s why some RMs use to hold sales job in investment banking, corporate banking, transaction banking, and priority banking.”

Understand financial markets

It’s not just about being a product flogger, however. As the Asian private banking sector shifts more towards managing client assets on an advisory-fee basis, banks increasingly require their RMs to have strong technical skills. “The ability to construct and showcase investment portfolios, and having a deep understanding of financial markets are basic hygiene requirements needed for this job,” says Wee Choon Hock, an MD and desk head at UBS’s private bank in Singapore, who began his career working in equities at an investment bank.

Show that your experience matters

Hiring managers at private banks will want to hear how your expertise in another part of the banking sector will add new skills to their team. You should present your move as providing a “deeper sense of maturity, richer working experience or perhaps even experience and knowledge in investing in financial markets”, says Wee.

Convert your clients

You should be able to convert some of your current customers into private banking clients. If you’re a corporate banking RM, for example, you’ll need to convince some of the entrepreneurs you know to let you manage some of their personal wealth. “Ultimately, the ability to connect, understand and build long-lasting, meaningful relationships is what’s demanded,” says Wee from UBS.

Get an RM mentor

“If you want to move from a non-RM background, your chance of success is higher if you move internally within the bank and have a senior RM as your mentor to help you build up your skills,” says Kang from Scorpio.

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Image credit: luamduan, Getty

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