I left “cut-throat” Hong Kong PE to run the lives of billionaire families

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I never planned to work in private banking, but that all changed about nine months ago when the wealth management arm of a large American bank in Hong Kong called me out of the blue. The bank was after one thing: my relationships with Chinese clients. I had been working in Hong Kong private equity for a few years, but most of my clients were on the mainland.

My PE job involved investing in small Chinese private enterprise, most of which were family run. I was helping these companies expand and priming them for potential IPOs. But while my job back then revolved around the more cut-throat corporate side of my clients’ businesses, I’m now helping the same clients with their family affairs.

I’m still using the same essential skill – my ability to communicate effectively with Chinese clients – but I’m using it in a much more interesting way.

I’m an in-house ‘family advisor’ at a private bank. There’s only a handful of us at my firm, and likewise at rivals such as Credit Suisse and UBS. I’m not a relationship manager or investment advisor; I focus only on the so-called softer stuff like family philanthropy, succession planning and financial planning.

But hold on, I hear you say: Why would anyone willingly swap a successful career in private equity to spend their days sorting out all this family stuff? And aren’t you supposed to move into PE, not out of it?

Well, for one thing, my job security is now comparatively high. Any well-trained finance professional can work on the investment side (my bank alone has hundreds of – largely expendable – experts working in bonds, currency etc), but there’s a big shortage of Hong Kong-based people who really know how to schmooze Chinese clients.

More importantly, in an investment-based job, the strength of your client relationships is measured almost entirely on the returns you make. But in my new role, the scope of my relationships is much deeper, more holistic and more long term.

For example, instead of offering investment advice about clients’ businesses, I have to plan further into the future because businesses sometimes fail. So perhaps I would advise them to set up a family office, so their wealth is not all tied up in the company.

This all means I have more variety in my working day. I get to run workshops for clients on succession or education planning, for example. I work at a bank, but I actually help people – and that gives me an innate sense of achievement.

Another big difference is that I now deal with the whole family – not just the head of the family and/or their chief business representative, as was the case when I worked in PE. I get to talk to the ‘children’ – the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs – who typically have different aspirations and attitudes from the older (and overwhelmingly male) leaders I dealt with in PE.

So again, this means more variety for me: variety of work and of people.

I think mine is a more people-focused role than almost all others in financial services. I get to understand what really drives and motivates my clients. I even (I shouldn’t admit this as a former PE professional) get to make friends with them.

Tammy Zhou (we have changed her name to protect her identity) works for a US bank in Hong Kong.

Image credit: Tomwang112, Getty

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