Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can be credited with making a significant contribution to the development of the industrial and service sectors of Hong Kong's economy. However, the continued expansion of such businesses depends to a large extent on receiving the appropriate financial backing and, for that, they must turn to the expert advice and funding provided by the local banking community.
In many cases, their regular point of contact is a relationship manager, who is trained to identify ways of helping SMEs minimise business risk and enhance their competitiveness.
Generally speaking, this executive is responsible for marketing commercial banking products and services, and for managing credit analysis, says Alan Wong, senior account manager for Hang Seng Bank's business banking centre. He points out that the job also entails building client relationships, giving advice on loans, and cross-selling investment products, such as insurance policies and MPF services.
In order to communicate effectively with customers, a relationship manager has to keep closely in touch with developments in the financial markets and the industries in which their SME clients operate.
"Our customers are from a wide range of business sectors, including restaurants, boutiques and other retail outlets," says Mr Wong. "We therefore need to be aware, for example, of the possible impact on their businesses of an increase in the price of oil or rental costs. A relationship manager has to keep an eye on the news, as any conversation with a client may cover a range of topics."
Thomas Tsui, assistant general manager and head of business banking for Hang Seng Bank adds that establishing a good understanding with customers is a crucial part of the business. "Good communication skills help facilitate building customer relationships," he says. "We expect our staff to have these, as well as related qualifications in the required area and knowledge of different industry sectors."
Mr Tsui, who has been in banking for 20 years, says fresh graduates usually start out now as account manager trainees and receive on-the-job training in the first year. They are taught about writing credit proposals, financial products and client management. Those who perform well can expect to be promoted to the position of senior account manager within about three to four years.
"Learning about credit analysis and how to assess business plans involves an in-depth understanding of financial statements and going through detailed case studies of different types of company. It is also necessary to cooperate with different departments, including our team in China, when working with clients who have operations in the mainland," Mr Tsui says.
He notes that there are about 300,000 SMEs in Hong Kong and about one-third of them are clients of Hang Seng Bank. "We offer them a broad range of commercial banking products as well as diversified investment products, but we are also facing competition from other banks, who realise there is still great potential for growth in the SME sector," he adds.
Mr Tsui says that it is important for any relationship manager who wants to work with SMEs to understand market trends and the factors which affect business development. "Despite the keen competition in the industry, I am still optimistic about the market outlook and the demand for professionals is set to remain high," he adds.
To support this positive assessment, he says that Hang Seng's business banking division hires on average 10 trainee account managers a year. In 2005, though, they plan to take on as many as 20, with the recruitment process scheduled to start in late June.
Apart from commercial banking knowledge, those accepted as trainees will also take courses to learn the essentials of investment products. "Some basic investment knowledge is a must for anyone entering the industry, but we will provide the necessary in-depth training," Mr Tsui says.
Candidates who have already passed the relevant qualifying examinations to acquire licences to sell MPF, insurance and securities products are preferred. Nowadays, some university graduates who aim to enter the banking industry even obtain these licences while they are still students.
Applicants for the position of relationship manager are also expected to be proficient in Cantonese, English and Mandarin. "With so many Hong Kong-based companies having production plants in China, our staff regularly have to deal with customers based in the mainland, so good language skills are very important," Mr Tsui explains.
- Relationship managers in the business banking division
usually act as the main link between banks and their SME
- The relationship manager must be up to date with general
business news and financial developments, as well as the
specifics of the business sector of each client
- The role will involve marketing of commercial banking
and wealth management services, and credit analysis
- Competition between banks for SME business remains tough
and new recruits are being hired for trainee programmes