Some people are unsure which career to follow even when they graduate from college, but as far back as he can remember, Timothy Lo never had a moment's doubt. From an early age, it seems that he was destined to go into the world of finance and make a name for himself as a private banker.
"I liked figures and was good at mathematics in primary school, and that evolved into an interest in economics during my high school years," Mr Lo says. "Seeing the ups and downs of the economy, I was keen to understand the reasons." Therefore, he studied economics and investment at university in Canada and set his sights on finding a good job in the field.
Returning to Hong Kong after graduation, he joined Chase Manhattan Bank (now part of Standard Chartered) in 1985 and was asked to focus on consumer banking. This allowed him to deal with clients on a day-to-day basis and to learn the basics of how the industry operates. It also paved the way for a move to HSBC five years later to take on a private banking role.
"I developed the ability to acquire new clients and that has certainly been a factor in helping me get ahead," he explains. "A real turning point came when I met a Shanghainese family who appreciated what I had done for them, and they subsequently referred many other clients to me."
This experience taught him the importance in the banking business of working on relationships and building a network. Mr Lo saw this again when another satisfied client introduced him to numerous new contacts in the telecom sector, most of which led to new business.
There is the job satisfaction and, financially, the sky's the limit
"It is essential to develop close, long-term relationships," he notes. "Without that, you can't provide the solutions which satisfy a client's needs or exceed their expectations." Get things right, though, and the rewards can be substantial. "There is the job satisfaction and, financially, the sky's the limit," Mr Lo adds.
Currently, he is managing director of CIC Investor Services Limited (CICIS), a Hong Kong subsidiary of France's fourth-largest bank, Credit Industriel et Commercial (CIC). He joined the company in 2003 to restructure operations and, since then, has consistently beaten sales targets and has increased the relationship management team to 12. The next stage of expansion will involve taking on eight extra managers, each capable of dealing with around 30 major clients.
Mr Lo must not only set the company's strategic direction, but also oversees daily management issues and human resources. "The quality of our people determines the quality of our business," he says. "Therefore, our relationship managers must be well-educated and have sound investment knowledge and strong interpersonal skills."
Private bankers can start in consumer banking, institutional sales, research, or with brokerages. They must, though, understand investments and have a good client network if they hope to make a successful transition. Since the focus is on high-net-worth investors, it's necessary to understand a wide range of finance and asset management products and services, but there is less need to worry about downturns in the economy. "Even during a recession, people still have to manage their wealth," says Mr Lo.
Even so, private bankers are facing new challenges: customers are becoming more knowledgeable and demanding, and the market is getting more sophisticated and competitive. If, as expected, more European players set up in Asia, some consolidation is likely to take place.
At present, Mr Lo is keeping a close eye on operating costs, since both rental rates and salaries in the sector are going up. He is also paying special attention to recruitment and retaining talent.
"Work hard, work smart, and work with heart is my motto," he says, adding modestly that the best private bankers are usually those who have a lifelong interest in and passion for investment.
Mr Lo believes China and India will emerge as important areas for private banking. "There are many rich people in China, but the market is not yet open," he says. Because of that, the current focus is on assisting mainland investors who already have assets overseas.