The best traders are IT savvy, understand macroeconomics, and have a stress-busting sense of fun, says Choo-Guan Yeoh, who was appointed Singapore head of equities for UBS last October.
Originally from Malaysia, Yeoh, joined UBS Singapore from RHB Securities in 2001 as a sales trader and progressed quickly into leadership roles. Moving to Hong Kong in 2007, she led the greater China client-trading and execution team and pioneered the UBS roll-out of A-share (mainland-listed companies) trading in China – a first for an international broker.
She returned to Singapore in 2010 to head client trading and execution for Southeast Asia, a role she still holds in her new job. Yeoh talked to eFinancialCareers about the lure of Asia for Westerners, women in banking and how she originally wanted to be a scientist.
What makes a good sales trader?
I look for people who enjoy extra-curricular activities. I’m not interested in one particular sort of hobby, but just anything that generally shows they are sensible yet have a sense of fun. Lightheartedness creates positive energy on a tense trading floor and helps refocus energy. Awareness of how technology can assist you, strong software knowledge and programming, is a plus. In addition, you need to have a stronger understanding of markets on a macro basis, across asset classes. Understanding how liquidity drives financial markets is important.
Some banks in Asia have been cutting equities jobs. What’s the headcount outlook for your team?
Equities is a core focus for us, and UBS is consistently rated one of the top equities businesses in APAC, so last year we held our headcount stable, despite downward market volumes. I think we’ll be able to do the same this year, too. Any future hiring really depends on market conditions. If there’s a small uptake, we already have enough capacity in our current team, so I can’t see us adding.
Are you receiving many applications from bankers in Europe or the US?
There is strong interest from bankers in the West wanting to work in Asia. I’d say the volume of requests we get has tripled or quadrupled in the last 18 months. But to get a job, they must show they have experience that is lacking here, and this is getting harder. For example, derivative products are well established in Singapore and Hong Kong now – there’s a strong talent pool already here. Of course if they are senior and can bring a client base that is new to the bank, that’s different. But junior people might struggle to add enough value.
What’s been your toughest challenge as a manager?
When I became Singapore equities head, I went from managing 17 to 39 people. I have a strong background in sales trading, which makes it natural and easy for these members of my team to look up to me. But in my new role, I also have to manage people in equity research, a field I haven’t worked in before, so I’ve to put a lot of effort into this. You have to manage them differently. Traders are very direct and aggressive; you can have heated discussions with them and there are no hard feelings the next day. With researchers, you have to take a different approach.
What was it like leading the UBS A-share roll-out?
In 2007, we opened UBS Securities in China, created from the restructuring of Beijing Securities. We were pioneers leading the way by being the first foreign broker bringing best global practices onto our execution platform in Shanghai. That period was an amazing experience as we had no room for mistakes. We were trading the largest A-share volume for a foreign broker. I was extremely proud of what the team achieved.
How did you become a banker?
It was quite by accident and unplanned for. I originally intended to become a scientist. I studied fisheries biology at Humboldt State University in California and did a partial MBA, which I thought would help me write funding proposals for scientific research. But when I went back to Malaysia in 1996 it was very difficult to get funding for a PhD research project. So when a friend wanted people for his boutique equities team in Kuala Lumpur, I took a job executing deals – basically just keying in orders and getting paid pretty well for it. Then I moved on to sales trading in a large Malaysian bank, which I enjoyed and was something I excelled in. I joined UBS in Singapore in 2001 and haven’t looked back since.
During your career did your gender ever hold you back?
Speaking just about my bank: I genuinely think we recognise merit regardless of race and gender. Our APAC CEO, Chi-Won Yoon, and other senior managers have driven a culture that is supportive of women. My managers were always on the lookout to provide opportunities for me to grow. The firm recognises high performers, both men and women, and makes sure they are taken care of in their career.
Looking at the banking industry as a whole, there are sometimes still challenges for women. While working in Hong Kong, I met up with the other heads of trading from the bulge bracket banks – I was the only Asian and the only woman. I think the number of senior women in banking probably fell during the financial crisis simply because they had more options – whether it was staying at home to start a new family or travelling. It wasn’t that they couldn’t handle the stress, they just had other options to consider and made the choices that were right for them.
The banking industry tends to be male-dominated across the board. If managers aren’t used to managing women, bias may creep into their hiring decisions, whether consciously or not. So as a hiring manager, you have to consciously think about what you can do to add diversity to the team to ensure that you generate the best ideas. But as a young banker, never get hung up on gender. Work hard, be passionate about banking, and find the right firm that recognises your needs.