Learning to manage
State Street EVP Wai Kwong Seck has relished the challenge of picking things up quickly as he progressed through the finance industry
Wai Kwong Seck could describe his job in a more complicated way, but he chooses to sum it up in a single word. “When I am flying and I am handed a landing card that asks what your occupation is, I always put down one thing: ‘manager’,” says State Street’s executive vice-president and head of global markets and global services across Asia-Pacific.
This role has been the one constant in his work as he moves from one position in the finance industry to another, he says.
“When you are on the buy-side, you need to focus on performance and returns and when you are on the sell-side, you are obviously talking about getting the sale done. But the common thread is actually about building teams, putting the best people in place and assuring organisational alignment.
“Whether you are a fund manager or working in a custody bank, it is the same thing – the challenge for a manager is to win through other people. Then, as you rise through the organisation, your job is to produce other managers.”
Seck joined custody bank State Street three years ago to run its securities and services business in Asia-Pacific, his latest step into the relative unknown.
Born in Singapore, he completed a degree in economics at Monash University in Melbourne, before starting work for the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). “They sent me over to do my MBA in the US at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania,” he recalls. What had been planned as a two-year visit at MAS eventually turned into a seven-year stay.
“At that time, Singapore set up the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation [GIC]. I was working for both MAS and GIC for a period of time when they posted me to New York – one salary, but two jobs. The industry was in the early stages of its growth, especially in fund management, and I was helping to manage the reserves.”
After witnessing first hand an exciting and turbulent period on Wall Street, He returned to Singapore at the end of the 1980s. Going from being a fund manager to a manager of fund managers was the first big leap for him. Then, at the age of 40, having spent 15 years working for both MAS and GIC, he decided it was time to try something different. Therefore, he went into investment banking with Lehman Brothers.
“Going from being a fund manager to a manager of fund managers was the first big leap for me.”
This position with Lehman brought him to Hong Kong, where he stayed until 1999, before returning to Singapore to support his children’s educational progress, but also to take up a position with DBS. “I ran their wealth management group, initially, and then I was asked to go over to corporate banking and run that.”
Seck pointed out to his boss he had never lent a dollar in his life. “He laughed and said, ‘You will learn.’ And I did have to learn very quickly how to do things like credit analysis, but I also had a good team of people around me.”
Four years later, Seck was approached by the CEO of the Singapore Exchange who was looking to replace his recently departed CFO. “I told him that I’d only done two accounting courses in my whole life. And he said, ‘Never mind, you’ll learn.’
“In my life, one of the things that’s kept me going is learning new things – whether about fund management, investment banking, wealth management, corporate banking, the job of a CFO, or the working of a custody bank.”
He accepted the exchange’s offer and set about implementing a strategy that has served him well when venturing into new fields. “As I moved from one role to another, one part of the industry to another, I’ve been new to everything. So, number one, you’ve got to learn very fast, but I think more importantly, you also have to spend a lot of time with people.
“After a while, you then come to the realisation that there are certain parts of the organisation, or certain departments, that really need to be fixed – and then you need to decide how to go about it.”
Seck’s move to State Street followed eight years at the Singapore Exchange. He says that the shift mirrors his past moves in that he has generally been hired to build things. “Here in State Street it was definitely to build.
“State Street was very thorough in terms of coming to a decision – they obviously checked me out and all of the senior people spent time with me. One of the reasons I joined State Street was because I believe very strongly in the future growth of Asia-Pacific.
“We are in the asset-servicing business and this is really the growth region of the world.”
When it comes to the challenges he faces in his working life, Seck takes a philosophical, and very pragmatic, view.
“I can’t change things like the economic environment, the competition or the regulatory systems, so I would rather focus my energy on what is within ‘my circle of influence’: the people that work with me and the organisation that is within my management control.”
He has some advice for anyone contemplating entering the financial industry. “The world will change, our business will change, and the best way to prepare for change is to have a learning attitude.”
Hopes for the future
Wai Kwong Seck’s wish list for his industry
Further liberalisation and integration of markets: Many countries here in Asia-Pacific have already gone down this path, but others are on the way. Fund passporting is in the works right now and that is very exciting in terms of integration.
Growth of retirement assets: Countries are increasingly focused on providing for their citizens when they retire. Japan and Australia, with their superannuations funds, are very much further down this road, but other countries in the region are beginning to develop in this area.
Political stability: This can only help foster economic growth in general.