What’s it like being a chief operating officer when your bank is going through a big restructuring and ramping up its compliance controls at the same time? And how about if you’re based in a region as diverse as Asia? Ask Yvette Kwan.
By 2015, Kwan had got to the top ranks at UBS in Hong Kong – she was APAC COO for the corporate client solutions division, and she’d been with the bank for just under 10 years. But this wasn’t exactly a straightforward time to be working for UBS, especially in Kwan’s job.
What does a chief operating officer (COO) do?
“The COO role changed massively overnight – from being a business facilitator to becoming a key player and often management’s proxy in the first line of defence,” says Kwan, now a Hong Kong-based consultant. “This was also the time of some big sanctions investigations and the princeling hiring scandal, and suddenly bankers just weren’t sure what they could or couldn’t do.”
Moreover, UBS had just announced some ambitious global cost-reduction targets, piling more pressure on Kwan’s plate. “As is invariably the case, Asia (with its many markets, all at different stages of development) got short changed in this process,” she says. “There was a serious reduction in back-office support for the Asian business, increased scrutiny from head office and regulators, and a lot of strain in the system due to tight headcount.”
It was the compliance burden, above all, that was making Kwan’s job difficult…and a little boring. “My role became increasingly about compliance, and I felt the dynamism of investment banking was being stifled – banking wasn’t fun anymore,” she says.
Many compliance controls in banks are by necessity very prescriptive but there are still a “lot of grey areas”, says Kwan. “That’s why having the right ethical mindset is so important to ensuring the spirit of the rules are respected,” she adds. “But at the time, many senior managers were still adjusting to the new reality of conduct being a risk factor for the bank. And they weren’t necessarily walking the talk, which made my job challenging.”
Kwan had to deal with a new set of challenges when she joined finance-sector consultancy Quinlan & Associates as a partner and COO in 2016. The Hong Kong-based firm was still in start-up mode back then. “We’ve had our ups and downs. It’s gutted us when we’ve reached the final shortlist on RFP processes and lost out, not because of our proposal but because of a need to bring an established name onboard,” she says. “There were slow periods in the first years when we wondered why we didn’t just rejoin an organisation that could pay a regular salary, but each new win motivated us.”
Kwan says while “huge momentum or inertia” keeps large banks in business, a startup runs “like a Matchbox car”. “You give it a good push, it gets some mileage, and then stops. You need to keep applying the pressure to keep it going, but you can tweak the direction on each push, which is much more dynamic. And now we're in our third year of business, I think we’ve reached an inflexion point, so we’re focused on scaling up,” she says, adding that her firm is hiring both junior and senior consultants.
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