How do you go from managing 3,000 km of urban waterways to designing complex financial products for Asia’s wealthiest families? Sean Kang can tell you.
Kang, who now works for consultancy McLagan as a director in wealth management, spent more than eight years at Credit Suisse’s private bank in Singapore.
But he didn't join CS straight from university or from a rival bank, nor did he come with a bulging network of wealthy potential clients.
Kang, an engineer by training, managed to break into the banking sector after an eight-year initial career at Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, where he led teams managing the city state’s water supply.
“I’d always had some interest in finance, so I started a CFA,” says Kang. “And it was while studying that I first became very passionate about wanting to be involved in the structuring side of financial products.”
But although his CFA work may have unveiled his dream job, he soon realised that the qualification itself wouldn’t actually help him find work at a bank.
“If you're in the public sector and you want to network your way into a bank, a good MBA may be better. While the CFA gives you the technical knowledge, there aren’t many networking opportunities when you’re at home studying for it,” he explains.
Kang ditched the CFA for an INSEAD MBA class that was full of people already working in finance. And soon after graduating a business development job cropped up at Credit Suisse in Singapore.
“It wasn’t product structuring, it wasn’t my ideal role, but you have to be very flexible if you’re making such a huge career change. Once you have your foot in the door you must then build up internal networks and a good personal reputation at the bank – so that’s what I did,” says Kang.
Within about three years he secured a move to the structured solutions unit at Credit Suisse, focusing on structured notes and OTC structures for Asian private banking clients.
Kang says the technical challenges of the job appealed to him. “A financial product is similar to a Lego construction – there are so many pieces that make up the big design. I love building up and stripping down products, and figuring out the basics that underlie them.”
The job also taught him to “really listen to clients”. “If you work in product structuring you can’t just be great technically, you need to understand the risk/reward balance of each client and never make anything too exotic if they don’t want it.”
And you must have the stomach to push back against clients (and private bankers). “Every client has different needs, but some needs just can’t be met. Some clients – and on occasion their relationship managers – will want you to design a high-reward structure with almost zero risk. That’s impossible.”
Kang adds: “So it’s also an educational job – you need to communicate what’s viable and what’s not in a product strategy, and explain why. You can’t just sit there in your office and structure stuff – you have to market what you do.”
It was this final element of his Credit Suisse job that ultimately led Kang to move to the Singapore office of McLagan, a consulting firm for the financial industry, last month.
“I’d been working on a smaller scale with clients at CS – advising them on their product strategies. In the process, I learnt how banks work and how to meet clients’ demand. Joining McLagan offers me the opportunity to extend my knowledge and look at the much bigger picture, which is essential in advising financial institution not just on product strategies but on trends affecting the whole sector.”
Image credit: lzf, Getty