Why did UBS hire a 55-year-old non-banker into a top Singapore job?

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Why did UBS hire a 55-year-old non-banker into a top Singapore job?

You might be raising eyebrows about how the man formerly in charge of Singapore’s public transport network will soon be starting a top job at the city state’s largest private bank, UBS. But you shouldn’t be, say industry experts.

On Monday, Desmond Kuek, who left his job as SMRT chief executive last August, will spend his first day as divisional vice-chairman for global wealth management at UBS. His career change runs counter to recent trends – senior executives (Kuek is 55) tend to leave banking for other industries, not enter the sector for the first time. And why has UBS – which hired 101 relationship managers in Asia in 2018 alone – appointed a non-banker when it could have poached someone from a rival bank?

The main reason is that Kuek should be able to grow UBS’s client network in Singapore. “Normally, it’s a huge risk for any private bank to take on a non-banker, but given Kuek’s profile, this hire is very much worth it,” says Liu San Li, a former private banker, now a business partner at wealth management firm Avallis in Singapore. “UBS wants to tap into his extensive network of ultra-high-net-worth clients.”

Kuek was in one of Singapore’s most high-profile and pressurised executive jobs when running SMRT between 2012 and 2018. But he has been building his network among influential Singaporeans for longer than that. He was chief of the Defence Force from 2007 to 2010, and was then permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources. He’s also been on various boards, including the Housing and Development Board, and the Defence Science and Technology Agency.

This executive and government-sector experience would have given him “excellent access” to current and prospective UBS private clients, says a private banking source in Singapore who asked not to be named.

Divisional vice-chairmen at UBS support the leadership team in client relationship development, and they work with client advisers (the UBS term for relationship managers) to generate new ideas for client engagement, reports the Straits Times. From Monday, Kuek will report to UBS’s head of UHNW business, Joe Stadler, and Asia Pacific president Edmund Koh.

Koh and Stadler will want to tap Kuek’s management skills as well as his personal network. “His non-banking experience could be effective when it comes to implementing changes or different approaches in management, because he lacks the usual baggage compared to people coming from private banking,” says Liu from Avallis.

Kuek’s hire does not, however, signal a return to pre-2008 hiring strategies when private banks in Singapore would more regularly convert non-bankers into relationship managers on the strength of their connections to wealthy people. While executive hires from outside of the finance sector (e.g. Kuek) may work out, non-bankers don’t typically make good RMs. “Almost all the non-bankers hired before the financial crisis failed to deliver on their assets under management targets from a zero base,” says Liu.

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