Financial Planning / Wealth Management

Banking on people

by Miranda Breding

Lina Cheng, vice president and head of financial advisory services
American Express Bank Ltd
Photo: Edde Ngan

Capitalising on an untapped market

The Hong Kong banking and finance industry is constantly evolving and wealth management in particular has experienced rapid growth in the past decade.

American Express Bank Ltd is a powerful player in the field with a network that covers cities across the globe, including Hong Kong. "Hong Kong is a sophisticated financial market with all the major players from top-tier retail to private banks," says Lina Cheng, vice president and head of financial advisory services at American Express Bank.

According to Mrs Cheng, FAS, a cornerstone of American Express Bank, ensures that each and every client receives personalised attention. Emphases on giving heart-felt care and trusted advice, extending global reach and allowing clients to learn from relationship managers (RMs) are invaluable in carving out and maintaining market share in the competitive financial planning market.

Today, American Express' dedicated financial advisory services (FAS) division serves the largely untapped business class niche. Its customers are high net-worth individuals with investments between US$100,000 and US$1 million.

The bank's RMs, Mrs Cheng says, are carefully chosen and groomed to ensure that they offer exceptional customer care. An RM must be able to serve clients by the FAS philosophy so the bank seeks people with the right intuitive attributes and then offers personalised training to complement these. New recruits receive 10 days of classroom training, which covers everything from customer service, product knowledge, compliance, and dress code, to dining etiquette. The aim of training is to develop professionals who can determine which products fit a particular customer's needs and ensure that customers know what they're buying. The bank also puts great emphasis on talent development offering high-performers ample opportunities to grow horizontally and vertically.

Understanding each customer's background, lifestyle and investment appetite is paramount and product pushing and churn tactics are forbidden. "Customers like to see the product, hear the recommendation and then make their own decision," Mrs Cheng says. RMs also counsel customers in market fluctuations, in good times and bad, allowing them to see the full picture of their investments. As well as helping customers identify their financial goals and recommending asset allocation, RMs also specialise in product balancing, which rewards clients with greater power to battle inflation and minimises the impact of market volatility. Quarterly follow-ups on investment performance encourage discussion between the two parties and help customers understand current investment situations, giving them a greater sense of control. This focus on relationship building is significant.

People focus
At American Express, free-flowing management-staff feedback is utilised to let staff voice their opinions on issues such as compensation, work environment, business direction and management. Yearly reviews of leadership indicate that staff satisfaction has risen over recent years.

Various programmes assist staff in achieving a healthy work-life balance. For instance, the July and August "summer flexi-hour" programme is especially important for staff with children. It allows staff to take time off based on overtime hours worked. A "leave on time" policy uses plaques as a reminder to staff who are tempted to stay in the office later than usual. "Sunshine Friday" is a more specific policy discouraging the scheduling of meetings late in the Friday workday. The bank is more interested in the quality of time spent, Mrs Cheng explains, not necessarily the quantity. For this reason, individual RMs are limited in the number of customers they can serve.

Meanwhile, American Express' charity taskforce is a channel endorsing staff community service. This year, the bank conducted a charity survey and most of the employees voted "children" as the charity beneficiary so the bank cooperates with the Hong Kong Student Aid Society to help children in need. As well as the charity events co-organised by the bank and charitable organisations, the bank also matches individual staff donations of up to HK$2,000 that are made to its chosen charities.

Putting a blight on the theory that finance is a male dominated industry, 60 per cent of the company's 600 Hong Kong staff are female. It has a Women's Interest Network (WIN) which is open to both men and women and offers seminars and activities. Guest speakers and classes on stress management, yoga and belly dance are all on the roster. Mrs Cheng believes that women face unique challenges balancing work and family and points out that mothers are allowed to arrange for flexi-hours during the first six months after returning from maternity leave.

To stay on top of rapid wealth management industry changes, American Express promotes specialised instruction and coaching. All RMs maintain mandatory Hong Kong Securities Institute licensing and attend frequent industry briefings. They also complete roughly 40 hours of additional training each year. External programmes such as Mandarin Chinese lessons, if they are not already being offered through the bank, or other job related training is encouraged. Upon successful completion of a programme, the company issues staff a tuition fee refund up to HK$10,000.

With contacts in 47 countries worldwide, American Express provides customers with extensive knowledge and expertise, and the best products. Offering outstanding career prospects, staff can work through the eight tiers of RM positions and beyond. Entry-level account executives who demonstrate their skill and experience can anticipate upward mobility in the company.


Taken from Career Times 13 July 2007
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