In an industry where staying five years at one firm is considered a long tenure, Agnes Liew stands out. The Singaporean spent 35 years at Citi, rising to become the head of its Asia Pacific corporate bank in Hong Kong.
Three months ago, however, Liew called time on her banking career. “In 2016 I had an opportunity to take on an even bigger job in Citi, but that would have meant committing to another three years or so in Hong Kong. I asked myself ‘do I really want to do this?’ and decided not to, but stayed on for 12 months to ensure a smooth transition.”
Liew had moved to Hong Kong in 2010 to lead the corporate bank. “I felt I’d achieve what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t want to spend my whole career in one industry and thought there had to be more to life than banking,” she says. “You’re quite cocooned in banking – you have a limited scope in the people you meet and the work you do. It’s all mainly finance related, even at a very global and senior level.”
Now back in Singapore, Liew has started her own company – oompf! – a “lifestyle gym” on East Coast Road.
So why choose fitness when many ex-bankers are going into fintech? “I want to meet people from different walks of life and look at life in a new way, so I’m focusing on something fun, which is my hobby as well as my business. I want to do something challenging, but completely unrelated to my prior life in banking.”
She hasn’t been a fitness buff for very long, however. “I’d occasionally go running and I’d been doing Pilates regularly for years, but I didn’t really look after my health very well. Then one day about two years ago I just walked into a gym in Hong Kong and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
“I soon realised what a difference consistent exercise makes – I felt so much more energised in my very busy role as a banker,” says Liew. “I was almost 60 and didn’t want to be unfit and not be able to enjoy my upcoming retirement from banking. So I set myself a challenge: get fit and become an entrepreneur.”
Liew says she doesn’t want people to be “intimidated by going to the gym”. “Mine’s not a big place where you’re competing with everyone around you to pump iron; it’s a boutique, luxury studio offering personalised training – in everything from circuits to yoga – at your own level. I want to educate and encourage people to do serious regular exercise, but have fun at the same time.”
Much of Liew’s corporate banking expertise – including business and financial-risk evaluation, management, governance, and IT systems – is being put to use running her own company. But she’s also learning new skills. “The marketing skills needed for a start-up are totally different to banking, for example. I’ve had to learn about social media from scratch.”
The majority of finance professionals need to get fitter, says Liew, despite the recent trend of bankers running ultra-marathons and doing extreme sports.
“It’s very difficult to peel yourself away from work to exercise, especially if you’re on the road a lot, like I was,” says Liew. “But being fit helps you to perform better at work and to have more energy when you’re travelling.”
“My advice is to not worry too much about what kind of exercise you do – whether it’s high-impact, yoga or weights – just commit to doing it for a set number of times each week,” she adds. “It’s ultimately a mental thing; it calls for relentless commitment.”