Imagination may not be the very first thing you associate with a banker, but when Yvonne Yung was asked to open a new retail branch for Citibank in Whampoa Garden, that was the one quality she needed above all others. "When I first saw the location, I could not believe it," she recalls. "It was in the middle of an enormous construction site and completely inaccessible to pedestrians. There was no chance of getting walk-in customers, so I had to start thinking up brand-new ways to attract business."
That was back in 1986 when the area was first being developed, and Ms Yung's initial step was to contact real estate agents and solicitors involved in selling the primary and secondary estates. After lengthy negotiations, she managed to secure exclusive rights to arrange mortgage financing for some blocks. When the new owners started to sign up for other banking services, she realised a breakthrough had been made.
Several promotions later and now director of CitiBusiness, Ms Yung still regards that period as one of the most formative experiences of her career. "At the time I had been a management associate for only one year," she says. "Therefore, having to set up a new branch was an immense challenge, but it taught me about every single aspect of the business." Indeed, she had to do everything from recruitment and training to marketing, operations and door-to-door sales. On occasion, she even provided a personalised document delivery service for clients who were not prepared to come to the branch!
Within twelve months, things were running smoothly and Ms Yung knew she had found her niche. "I really like to deal with people," she explains, "and in retail banking you see a wide variety of customers. Being able to meet different client expectations is one of the biggest rewards of the job."
Being able to meet different client expectations is one of the biggest rewards of the job
As a member of the bank's fast-track development programme, Ms Yung did not expect to rest on her laurels. She moved on to a series of assignments managing progressively larger branches before handling district sales and then a succession of roles in quality management. The first of these was a newly created position of quality director which provided a chance to review the efficiency of banking operations. She decided that quality standards must be set and consistently improved. As a result, staff were taught to use the same style of greeting in all customer contacts, practices were reviewed, and higher service standards were agreed. As a clear sign of success, Ms Yung was designated as regional quality director for Asia Pacific in 2003 and, prior to her current assignment, was director of branch banking, sales and distribution.
"What made each job interesting was the constantly changing nature of the industry," she says. "The range of retail banking services has been evolving and wealth management, which I oversee in my current position, is a newer area with great potential. Twenty years ago, most customers probably had just a savings account and traditional time deposits. Now we can offer them multi-currency deposits, mutual funds, stock trading services and expert financial advice."
Ms Yung readily acknowledges that her own success has depended on a combination of opportunity and performance. "The bank's culture is definitely meritocratic," she says. "I was fortunate that interesting new openings kept coming up. However, if I had not performed well, those offers would have gone to other people."
Nowadays, any recruit joining the retail division benefits from a comprehensive induction and training programme which has given Citibank its "University of Banking" nickname. After gaining a wide range of investment knowledge and experience in customer relationship, the next step is usually to work as a personal banker, or even a CitiGold relationship manager for privileged clients.
Whichever route lies ahead, certain defining characteristics are likely to be apparent. "We look for people with drive and a can-do attitude," says Ms Yung. "They must also be flexible and highly energised. Furthermore, they should know that anyone who wants to maintain an edge in the fast changing world of retail banking must keep improving in order to stay competitive."
Citibank's current expansion in Hong Kong and on the mainland is creating many new vacancies. As China's banking regulations are relaxed and new markets develop, additional branches will be opened.
"This will create opportunities for existing employees and for new recruits," says Ms Yung. "Mainland staff may have the chance for job rotations to Hong Kong and employees here, who have suitable management experience, may be asked to relocate to China."
In either case, Ms Yung is keen to emphasise that one thing is essential for success: "Attitude comes first," she says. "Other skills can always be added."