The finance industry has been experiencing a period of upheaval, but one Hong Kong bank remains deeply rooted in its time-honoured tradition while providing the standard of service expected from a modern banking institution.
"We are mature but energetic. Our 90-year-old heritage and brand image reflect our strength and trustworthiness," says Grace Chow, general manager, wealth management, the Bank of East Asia Limited (BEA). "Tenacity has always been part of our brand identity. This has paid dividends, as we have a strong emphasis on building and maintaining long-term partnerships with our clients."
Last year, BEA China became the first foreign bank to launch renminbi debit and credit cards in mainland China. In June this year, the bank again took the lead as the first mainland-incorporated foreign bank to issue renminbi retail bonds in Hong Kong. "We've also entered the wealth management sector in Taiwan recently. All these are setting the pace for our increased presence in the greater China region," Ms Chow notes.
With a network of more than 130 branches and SupremeGold centres in Hong Kong, BEA is set to go further. "We have a very strong foothold as far as local competition is concerned," says Ms Chow. "In spite of the current downturn, we aspire to move forward and increase our brand equity."
The bank's expanding wealth management business in Hong Kong is evident to Ms Chow's confidence. BEA's wealth management service caters to clients' individual needs in various stages of their lives, with an expanding service portfolio encompassing private banking, structured investments, unit trusts, insurance, retail bonds and initial public offerings.
Ms Chow believes that the global financial turmoil has left some visible impact on the industry and it will take some time to heal the wounds.
The wealth management process has, for example, become more complex, placing more stress on resources. "Some banks are now requiring the presence of two wealth managers in meetings with customers who, in turn, may have to bring along witnesses," Ms Chow says.
The existing system allows banks to take an advisory role, providing a platform for customers to make informed decisions. Wealth managers should make sure that clients are not left uncertain of what to do.
"Finding the balance so that both parties benefit is a real challenge," she adds. "It is also important for customers to understand exactly what they are investing in. Customer confidence hit rock bottom during this financial crisis, so wealth managers must reassess the way they deal with clients."
Ms Chow stresses that now is the time for wealth managers to develop an enhanced sense of responsibility, not only when it comes to themselves and their customers, but also society as a whole.
With some early signs of economic recovery, key industry players have launched new products and resumed recruitment. BEA has also been actively interviewing candidates. The bank is re-launching its management trainee programme, with fresh graduates to start work in September, Ms Chow reveals.
A panel judge in this year's HKIB Outstanding Financial Management Planner Awards, Ms Chow notes that Hong Kong's wealth management profession learnt some important lessons this year.
"Over the past few years, both wealth managers and their customers focused primarily on investment performances. The financial crisis has brought about a change in mindset," she expands. "Some companies that focused primarily on marketing in the past are now shifting their focus to risk management. Diversification of risk is important, and a comprehensive portfolio should project a full picture of a customer's financial situation."
Ms Chow says professionals now have a golden opportunity to upgrade their qualifications to position themselves better for the future. She adds that the HKIB Outstanding Financial Management Planner Awards has been an excellent benchmarking exercise, which has helped young professionals increase their confidence.
"Many young professionals perceive the financial sector as a dream industry, but the recent shake-up has taken its toll. Budding professionals who may only have a few years of experience can now see the industry from a different perspective. The overall atmosphere in the finance sector has been tense, and to outperform others in such a competitive environment can be a real endorsement," Ms Chow concludes.