For most banking professionals making one major career change is an achievement – Vincent Choo, however, has worked across four different functions during his time in the Asian finance sector.
Now head of risk at OCBC, Choo’s first job was trading vanilla FX products at Standard Chartered in the early 1990s.
“After I’d been there around three years the bank wanted derivatives experience, which I didn’t have back then. It started bringing in people from overseas so I decided to look for alternative jobs,” says Choo, speaking to eFinancialCareers on the fringes of the FT Asia Banking Forum in Singapore.
His search eventually took him to Chase Bank in Singapore, but not as a trader. “But because of my trading experience, they offered me a job auditing the front office,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, Choo says the work environment in audit was “less intense” than in FX trading. “I’d suddenly gone straight from the first line to the third line of defence, so it was a big change. I had to spend much more time reading up on polices and regulations, for example.”
Choo was at Chase for about 18 months. “The downside of the job was the travel. I was living out of suitcase, flying around the region and to New York and London – I was officially based in Singapore but spent little time here.”
His next move was to Bankers Trust in Hong Kong as head of a different function – product control. “This was the mid-90s, the heyday of equities warrants, derivatives hedging and the like – and because of my trading-audit experience, I was familiar with the pricing of these products for the front office.”
This meant that Choo didn’t stay in product control for long – Bankers Trust wanted to tap his product know-how and gave him a choice of two roles: head of Hong Kong market risk, or a sales role selling the products he’d previously been assessing.
“I chose risk because I thought it would offer better career longevity and because I wanted to remain on the other side of the fence but still be connected with the markets,” Choo says of his choice not to re-join the front office.
He worked in market risk from 1997 to 2007 and joined Deutsche Bank when it bought Bankers Trust in 1998. “I then became chief risk officer for Asia Pacific at Deutsche and I enjoyed that challenge. But it was difficult at times given that many of the directives originated from head office.”
This helps explain why he found the OCBC job – Choo joined in 2014 – so appealing. “OCBC is headquartered here in Singapore, so I can now have greater flexibility in driving the risk function of the entire bank. And being part of the bank’s senior management team, I am involved in important strategic decisions.”
Like most banks, OCBC is hiring in risk this year. “Some of the main leading risk areas we are focusing on today are non-financial – such as cyber risk and fraud risk. And the pace of change in risk management is so much quicker faster than when I started out. The IFRS 9, an international financial reporting standard that will come into place in 2018, requires another very new set of skills, for example”
Banks in Singapore often find it difficult to hire people with the required risk skills, says Choo. “All banks are going after the same people. The universities aren’t producing enough suitable graduates, especially in the quant space – people with degrees like a Masters in Financial engineering.”
Given the high demand for risk professionals in Singapore, Choo says some OCBC traders and even relationship managers have moved into risk roles within the bank.
More fundamentally, OCBC is developing its own “pipeline” of risk talent. It runs a three-year accreditation programme in operational risk in partnership with the National University of Singapore’s Risk Management Institute and Singapore’s Institute of Banking and Finance. Almost 500 employees have enrolled on the scheme, which creates “risk champions” across different departments.
“My ideal candidate for any risk role is someone who can see through the form of a product and look at the substance,” says Choo. “For example, be able to spot slight variations in derivatives products or assess the real intent of clients – is the request for financing for business or speculative purposes?”
Although banks are looking for good communication skills in risk professionals, Choo says technical expertise such as mathematical skills is still important. “When I interviewed at Bankers Trust my CV said I had certain skills. So they gave me a calculator and said ‘prove it’.”