Trade finance is a crucial part of any major bank's operations, facilitating as it does the range of commercial activities that link manufacturers, exporters, insurers, shipping companies and any number of intermediary agents. Bringing all those parties together in a business network that spans the globe is no easy task. However, with nearly 30 years' experience behind him, David Cheng, vice president and deputy general manager of Hong Kong operations for Wachovia Bank, National Association, knows just about everything there is to know about how to do it.
"It takes both knowledge and experience to achieve sustained success," says Mr Cheng, who was initially attracted to the banking industry by the job security and good prospects it promised. He joined HSBC in 1975 as a clerk and, after learning the basics there, was later offered positions with Chase Manhattan Bank and First Union National Bank, which is now Wachovia Bank, National Association.
"I was lucky to have such opportunities to learn and to pick up relevant skills in a very systematic way," he says. "I decided early on to devote my career to becoming a specialist in banking operations and have been able to acquire practical experience in almost every area." These include trade operations, loans and deposits, foreign exchange and bullion, money markets, derivative products and merchant banking operations. The hard work required to master each discipline also earned Mr Cheng regular promotions as he climbed the corporate ladder to his current senior management position.
For anyone looking to follow in his footsteps, he believes that two major competencies are essential. "You definitely need in-depth knowledge of all the different banking products and services," he notes. "Besides that, you must be committed to continuous learning. To strengthen my own academic background, I have studied for a BBA and am now taking a Master's degree in e-commerce with the Open University of Hong Kong."
It takes both knowledge and experience to achieve sustained success
Mr Cheng also points out that banking professionals should remain aware of changes and always be ready to develop new skill-sets. In dealing with his current responsibilities, he finds supervisory and management skills most necessary in daily operations. "I have to assist the general manager in running the whole branch, in full compliance with all local banking regulations, and to implement corporate policies in line with our local strategic plans and market needs," he explains. As head of Hong Kong branch operations, Mr Cheng is also accountable for managing all operation departments and ensuring that everything goes without a hitch.
"The majority of my time is now spent on meetings and staff management issues which include career development and counselling, cost control and expenses, and operational policies," he explains. Despite a hectic work schedule, Mr Cheng still finds time to contribute to the community as an executive committee member of the International Chamber of Commerce.
While the job is undoubtedly tough, Mr Cheng believes it is a viable choice for any graduate who possesses dedication and has a passion for the business of trade finance. New talent is needed but excellent credentials are expected. "With a sound academic background, graduates can quickly learn the intricacies of banking and trading mechanisms and become fully competent in the local as well as the international marketplace," he says.
Generally, degree holders will join as part of a trainee programme, while other applicants may be accepted to start as trade technicians. Either way, hard work and application will be needed. "There are no shortcuts in this business," says Mr Cheng. Wachovia staff have, however, generally received year-end bonuses and annual increments when many other Hong Kong employers have frozen salaries and suspended all bonus payments.
Mr Cheng is justifiably proud of being regarded as a pillar of the banking community and of the organisation for which he works. What he most enjoys now are the everyday challenges. "Overcoming challenges gives me a great sense of satisfaction," he says. "Since the industry is moving so fast, we have to prepare ourselves for constant change and always be thinking ahead."
With a career spanning nearly three decades, Mr Cheng still finds himself working with the sort of SPIRIT (Service, Productivity, Integrity, Rewards and Redevelopment, Innovation, and Teamwork) that Wachovia demands. "Those values have been central to my career and I believe they should be to everybody's," he concludes.
With China's accession to the WTO, international trade has taken another step forward. However, the technical standards and service quality of the mainland's trade financing industry have not necessarily kept pace. In Mr Cheng's view, more professional talent will be needed. "Employees have been sent from Hong Kong to China offices since the 1990s and many have assumed managerial positions," he says.
In anticipation of the continued expansion of business in China, Wachovia Bank, N.A. plans to open a branch in Shanghai. According to Mr Cheng, "We will continue to assign quality staff to serve the finance and trade needs of the mainland market."