Being in Hong Kong’s “kick-ass” finance sector is like working on Wall Street in the ‘90s

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When Jeb Altonaga, COO of hedge fund PINYIN Capital Management, first arrived in Hong Kong, he’d already clocked up more than 10 years’ finance experience in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“But coming here was still totally re-energising for me, both career-wise and personally,” says Altonaga, who moved to Hong Kong in 2010 with Citadel.

“It’s obviously a smaller financial community than in the States and access to senior guys is a lot better – I can go for lunch with department heads from tier-one investment banks,” he adds.

Despite China’s economic slowdown, Altonaga says the outlook for the city’s finance sector remains positive. “It still has a kick-ass go-get-'em environment – it’s a bit like Wall Street in the '90s.”

Moving to Hong Kong is far from the only big change Altonaga has made in what he describes as an “unconventional” career.

While he interned at Morgan Stanley in New York and got his first job at Citi (in 1999), he decided not to claw his way up rank-by-rank at a big investment bank.

“I also chose not to do an MBA even though everyone else was getting one. I’ve managed to achieve upward momentum in my career by moving into different functions rather than just advancing in the same job," says Altonaga. "Taking on new roles not knowing 100% what you’re doing is much better for learning than any formal training.”

Altonaga left Citi to take a job in forensic accounting in the restructuring team at California-based firm Grobstein, Horwath & Co.

“After two years of building my sales and PowerPoint skills at Citi, I felt I needed some more fundamental finance knowledge," he said. "And this was when the bubble had burst, so it was very interesting work – reverse engineering exactly what happened at these internet companies.”

Next up, Altonaga joined Countrywide Capital Markets (now part of Bank of America) as a senior trading analyst…then in 2006 he became a middle-office and Treasury product control VP at the same firm.

"I spoke with Countrywide Capital Market’s CFO about a move to the middle office, and he helped convince me it was a better longer-term career strategy. He said the probability of having a long-term career as a trader and being a star with a seven-figure income is low. It's better in comparison to maintain a career trajectory in the middle office and enjoy compensation in the high six figures once you make director to managing director level."

If you’re planning a career change in financial services, Altonaga advises to always “look two steps ahead”. “If you take a valuation job, for example, ask whether it will help your ultimate aim of getting into risk management.”

And don’t always move into a role because it gives you a big brand on your CV. “When BoA bought Countrywide in 2008, I had the chance to move to the head office in Charlotte, and I also got an offer from Goldman Sachs in New York. But at the last minute Citadel in Chicago came in with an offer which appeared to have more upside.”

Altonaga became a valuations and product control manager at Citadel, a move which resulted in his transfer to Hong Kong two years later for a completely different role – head of relationship management and operations for Asia Pacific.

“Citadel was building its client base in Hong Kong, and this was my opportunity to further build my soft skills – I’d already developed the technical and analytical skills.”

When Altonaga’s Citadel division was sold to Northern Trust in 2012 he secured yet another career change, becoming Asia Pacific head of hedge fund services. “It was a broader role than ever before – I got involved in operations, sales and accounting. No day was the same.”

Last year Altonaga took his COO job at PINYIN, the Hong Kong hedge fund launched in 2014 by former SAC Capital Advisors manager Andrew Bazarian.

“This was a next logical step. I have a hand in even more things now – prime brokerage, working with the founder, vendor relationships. It’s like running a business; I can use all my skills," Altonaga said.

“It was also great to get back into a buy-side environment after working in a more conservative bank or trust company environment. And while I love early-morning starts, I didn’t love the constant late night calls to the US in my previous Hong Kong jobs.”

PINYIN now employs eight people, mainly in equity research and portfolio management. “Next year we may look to hire more research and investor relations staff,” says Altonaga.

“There are no boundaries working in a smaller firm like this," he said. "I sometime jump in and do modelling if needed – and you’re never too senior to get the coffee.”

Image credit: Igor Demchenkov, Getty

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