12 ways to break into private banking in Asia

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How to break into private banking in Asia

It's tough to break through

You want to become a private banker, you want to manage your own clients in Asia’s rapidly expanding wealth sector. But right now you’re an assistant relationship manager (RM) performing tedious support tasks instead of meeting millionaires.

While many assistants in Hong Kong and Singapore stay in the role for years – even for their whole careers – others are able to make the step up and become junior-level RMs. Here’s how.

1. Push for promotion

This is not like an analyst-to-associate move in investment banking, where good performance is typically rewarded with a promotion after a set number of years. In the bottom rung of private banking you have to excel in your day-to-day administrative tasks and prove (via the methods below) that you are worthy of stepping up. Most banks don't apply a timescale to this.

2. Don’t attempt an external move

Think your stellar record as an assistant means you can join another bank as a junior RM? You can’t. “If you apply to other banks, they are unlikely to believe you have strong client relationships. And even if you do, your job title, assistant, kills this chance. You have to move internally,” says Liu San Li, private banking practice lead at CA Search in Singapore.

3. Start building a rapport with the rich

While your assistant job won’t involve many client meetings, you will be talking to clients on the phone a fair amount. Don’t make these calls purely transactional (even if that’s their main purpose) – try to build a relationship. “The people that successfully become private bankers have both a high EQ and high IQ,” says Josie Ling, a private banking consultant at search firm Eban. “Arguably, the former is more important – high-net-worth people in Asia are generally emotionally attached to their wealth because they created it.”

4. Prioritise any client-search work

If you’re told to take on any work related to researching or contacting new potential clients, make it a priority. “The best assistants take it upon themselves to research new clients without being asked. Your drive and hunger for this type of work will pay a large part in whether you are promoted,” says Clarence Law, a Singapore-based business advisor in private banking.

5. Dress for future success

You may be in a support role, but you need to dress like you’re already a private banker – this includes wearing an expensive watch as well as expensive business clothes. “Your current presentation and image counts for a lot if the bank is thinking about eventually putting you in front of clients,” says Law.

6. Show your product knowledge

Go beyond any product paperwork you already do in your day job – make suggestions to the RMs about potential product solutions for their clients. “Beyond merely looking like a banker, show some substance – understand products yourself and know how to bring in your colleagues in the investment/product teams,” says Ling.

7. Get CACS

If you’re working in Singapore, be sure to sit the Client Advisor Competency Standards (CACS) exams, run by the Institute of Banking & Finance (IBF), says Liu. The qualification is compulsory for private bankers and some firms are now insisting that their assistants have it too. The IBF’s Capital Markets and Financial Advisory Services (CMFAS) qualification will help to further boost your product knowledge. Our own data suggests that an MBA, rather than a CFA, will also give you an edge in Asian wealth management.

8. Impress during meetings

It’s relatively rare for an RM to take an assistant to a client meeting – but if you do get asked, treat it as seriously as you would a job interview. If the RM senses that you don’t feel comfortable talking face-to-face with a millionaire client, this will effectively kill your chances of promotion.

9. Don’t overstep

“While you should show the traits of a good banker, remember that you’re still in an assistant's role – that’s the main job and you don’t want to fail in that and jeopardise your chances of moving up,” warns Ling from Eban.

10. Aim small

You can offer ideas to help RMs with clients of all sizes, but when it comes to discussing taking on clients of your own, always talk about the smallest accounts. “Sometimes RMs will trim their clients and focus on the ultra-high ones themselves, passing on ‘lesser’ clients for you to manage on a test basis while you’re groomed to be a private banker,” says Liu.

11. Butter up an older RM

If the senior RM you support has plans to retire, your chances of taking on some of their clients are greatly enhanced. “Target senior bankers you perceived as nearing retirement. You have to work hard to spot these opportunities and then build solid relationship with the bankers to earn their trust,” advises Liu.

12. Take a step back

It’s a more roundabout route, but it could land you a job as a private banker in Asia. “After a few years as an assistant in private banking, become a front-line RM in priority/premier banking, taking care of less-wealthy clients. Build up client and investment-management experience and then after another few years there will be more options to return to private banking – this time in an RM position,” says Rahul Sen, head of private wealth management at search firm The Omerta Group in Singapore.

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