Private banking does not involve just money or taking risks. Dealing with the emotions of clients, especially when they go through the ups and downs of the market, is an important part of the job. Bankers are trained to ensure they are providing services that can best meet the clients' needs.
David Wong, executive director and region head of private banking for North Asia, American Express Bank, says different investors have different emotional responses to their investments. Understanding the financial needs and expectations of the clients is thus of paramount importance. His mission is to offer advice and services that help them succeed in their investments.
Having worked in the industry for more than 27 years, Mr Wong has clients from all walks of life, including entrepreneurs and individuals who have built up their wealth through their own business. They are some of Hong Kong's rich and famous whose capital is often linked to the property and stock market.
American Express Bank's private banking business caters for individuals with a high net worth. They are cardholders and entrepreneurs whose minimum investment amount with American Express is US$1 million, with average asset under management of US$3 million. Depending on their risk appetite, clients are offered an array of investment choices ranging from capital-guaranteed products, bonds and equity to derivatives such as options and futures.
"Every day I come across exciting experiences when advising clients on their investments," notes Mr Wong. "Each client is different and I spend a lot of time building up the relationship and trust with my clients. In doing so, I will have a better understanding of their needs, personality and the risk they can face."
For conservative investors, Mr Wong advises them to spend only a small portion of their assets on risky investment products and more on low-risk investment products like capital-guaranteed funds, which they can expect to have full return of their principal plus part of the interest. Balance of the interest will be re-invested, while the rest of the portfolio goes to time deposit.
More aggressive investors can venture into "high-risk high-return" investments such as equity, by injecting capital in soon-to-be-listed companies.
"No matter what the risk appetite of our clients is, we advise them to diversify their asset allocation," Mr Wong says.
The brand factor
Mr Wong points out that the key to success in private banking is to offer quality service; uphold integrity and provide continuous training for staff. Executives are sent to the company's leadership training annually. "As we are managing the assets and wealth for our clients, it is vital for us to maintain the highest standard of integrity, service quality and professionalism.
"The brand is also one of the key factors why people turn to us and remain loyal. American Express is a renowned service brand in the world and we have been very focused in cultivating ongoing and close relationships with our clients," says Mr Wong. Apart from investment advice and market updates, the bank also offers their clients value added services like trust service and invites them to take part in social activities like auctions, exhibitions and golf tournaments.
Mr Wong, who obtained his certified public accountant qualification in Australia, joined Citibank as a trainee in 1976. He worked his way up the firm before joining American Express in 1995. He now splits his time visiting clients and performing management and administrative duties. "There are many things to learn in this industry, not just technical matters. You have the opportunity to expose yourself to different products, market situations and managerial responsibilities."
The bank experienced double-digit growth in the past year in the number of clients, assets under management and revenue. On 1 October 2003, the bank completed its acquisition of London-based Threadneedle Asset Management Holdings, one of the premier asset management companies in the United Kingdom, with assets under management exceeding US$80 billion. The move is a key step for the bank to expand its global financial service business.
Mr Wong believes the outlook for the private banking industry is promising. "There will still be ups and downs in the market. People value professional financial advice on interest rates, foreign exchange, the equity market, and international stock market in times of uncertainty."
American Express Company, founded in 1850, has served Hong Kong for 87 years. It introduced its private banking business to Hong Kong 20 years ago. Mr Wong says the bank is always looking for the right people who are capable of developing a good network of clients.