As Private Banking Booms, ‘Relationship Manager’ Is Glamour Job
When Simon Ng, a Singaporean army officer, set his sights on the glamorous world of private banking last year, he didn’t know much about stocks and bonds. “I thought a bond is something they tie you up with,” he recalls.
Then he turned down an army promotion and forked over S$48,000, or roughly $31,000, in savings to enroll in a wealth-management program. These days, he is interning at a major private bank’s Singapore branch and expects to land a private-banking job by summer. “This industry is booming here,” says the 31-year-old Mr. Ng. “It is the right place to be.”
Such career changes are by no means rare in this island-state, which, with an estimated $250 billion in private-banking assets under management, aims to rival Switzerland as a global private-banking hub. As private banks operating in Singapore report assets increasing at rates of 15% to 30% annually, they can’t get enough warm bodies to cater to Asia’s multiplying class of super-rich.
“It has become very difficult to find good people,” says Rolf Gerber, Singapore chief executive of Liechtenstein’s LGT Bank.
Clients of private banks like LGT typically have at least $1 million in financial assets. Unlike retail banks, private banks offer personalized advice from a dedicated manager whose duties extend beyond merely taking care of money and can involve socializing with customers aboard yachts, in sophisticated restaurants and on golf courses. Some bankers say salaries in Singapore for some of these relationship managers, as they are known, recently surpassed pay levels in Switzerland.
A recent survey by Calamander Group, an advisory and investment firm, estimates there are roughly 2,000 trained relationship managers based in Singapore — with an immediate market demand for 2,500, a number expected to rise to 5,000 to 6,000 in five years. The other Asian private-banking hub, Hong Kong, also has a shortage.
“Everyone is interested in coming here to establish an operation, everyone tries very hard to hire — and if the demand is larger than supply, there is a bottleneck,” says Didier von Daeniken, head of private banking for Southeast Asia and Australasia at Credit Suisse Group who is based in Singapore.
The rush to find new recruits is sparking concern about a possible deterioration of service. “When you have to hire that many people,” a large number will be “unprepared, inexperienced and unqualified,” says Leslie Menkes, head of Morgan Stanley’s private-banking business in Singapore.
The boom has made poaching staff common. At Credit Suisse, Alex Widmer, formerly head of private banking and head of Asia Pacific, jumped ship in 2005 to join rival Julius Baer, where he now heads private banking; he subsequently hired away a number of senior Credit Suisse bankers.
In February 2006, Joachim H. Straehle, the Singapore-based head of international private banking at Credit Suisse, quit to become chief executive of smaller Swiss rival Bank Sarasin & Co. Ltd.; he in turn lured Fidelis Goetz, Credit Suisse Group’s head of private banking for North Asia, to Sarasin in September. Credit Suisse is hiring Marcel Kreis from rival UBS; he takes over as head of private banking in the Asian-Pacific region this month.
“It’s a very competitive market,” says Pierre Baer, chief executive for Singapore and Southeast Asia at SG Private Banking, a unit of Societe Generale SA and a former head of Southeast Asia private banking at Credit Suisse.
Singaporean authorities are urging banks to focus on training.
“It is vital that we build a strong pipeline of fresh blood and increase the inflow of new but competent people into the industry,” said Ong Chong Tee, deputy managing director of the Singapore Monetary Authority, in a speech last year.
Bankers and the Singaporean government have joined forces to train prospective recruits.
The recently created Singapore Wealth Management Institute, where Mr. Ng is completing his master’s degree, and separate programs run by Credit Suisse and UBS have converted scores of women and men from the most unlikely professions — curtain salesmen, pianists and sewage engineers — into private bankers.
At the Wealth Management Institute, which runs two-month courses in addition to the year-long master’s program, experienced professionals teach aspiring private bankers about financial markets, estate planning — and basic etiquette.
Lessons include how to choose correct attire (such as telling women not to wear golden shoes) and tips on the correct use of forks and knives, says Annie Wee, the institute’s chief executive and herself a former private banker with Credit Agricole Indosuez.
Other lessons impart the region’s cultural taboos, including, Ms. Wee says: don’t ever touch the head of a Thai, don’t wear black to a Chinese wedding, and eat before going to an Indian party so your hungry stomach doesn’t gurgle while waiting for a late meal.
Graduates of the master’s program, bankers say, can expect starting salaries of about S$70,000 to S$90,000; after three to five years’ practice, they can earn several times that amount as full-fledged relationship managers.
Last year, when UBS advertised its own private-banking course in Asian newspapers, about 3,000 applicants responded, competing for 33 spots.
One of the candidates was Pang Siu Yuin, a professional pianist and former senior manager of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra who now works at UBS’s Hong Kong branch.
Ms. Pang says her unusual artistic background makes her stand out and helps in interactions with wealthy clients.
“When they ask me what I did before UBS, they expect me to say it was bank XYZ,” she says.
UBS, which employs 1,000 people in its Singapore private-banking division alone, says it is enrolling 60 students this year.
Increasing the number of recruits is necessary because Asian clients can be different from typical private-bank customers in Europe.
“Most of our clients are entrepreneurs who have made the money themselves, and they are much more proactive” in managing their assets, says Mr. Baer of SG Private Banking. “In Europe, it’s much more inherited, and people tend to leave it to the banker.”
The result is that a relationship manager in Asia handles about 30 clients, compared with as many as 300 per banker at some institutions in Europe, according to an Asia-based private banker.
“The clients here are all over you every day,” says Roman Scott, managing director in Singapore at Calamander Group. “Here you have to work for your money. In Switzerland, you won’t see private bankers on their phones with clients at midnight.”
Yaroslav Trofimov in Singapore and Edward Taylor in Frankfurt. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Feb 12, 2007. pg. C.1