Practising what you preach: Alex Fung, CEO of private wealth management in Asia at Vontobel, tells us how transparency and authenticity have helped him rise up the ranks in private banking
By describing the trajectory of his 30-year career as driven partly by design and partly by serendipity, Alex Fung, chief executive of Vontobel’s private wealth management business in Asia, demonstrates the sort of authenticity crucial for a private banker to create a trustworthy reputation.
Born in Hong Kong, Fung learned adaptability at an early age by attending a Mennonite boarding school in Manitoba, Canada, through the sponsorship of an aunt and uncle. “My uncle was in medical school in Manitoba and my aunt was a social worker and they brought me to Canada, which was a big deal in those days,” he says. “It threw me directly into a different culture,” he says. “Basically every student was from the farming communities of southern Manitoba. I was the only outsider.”
He remained in Canada for high school and went on to attend the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. But it was through an exchange programme sponsored by the Irish Investment Bank in Dublin that his career started in earnest.
Fung then headed to London to start what he calls the “design aspiration” of his career in finance. His potential was identified shortly after he joined the Canada Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) as a junior bond trader and he saw his career fast-tracked as North American banks shifted their focus eastward. CIBC started its securities trading operation in Tokyo in 1985 with Fung as one of three traders sent at the height of the Japanese economic boom. After four years in the city, primarily focused on the Eurobond book and proprietary trading, serendipitous forces started to take hold.
At that time, private banking in Asia was in its infancy and, given the strong links between Hong Kong and Canada, CIBC saw an opportunity with Fung as its leading man.
“At the time, private banking was just starting to take shape in Hong Kong,” says Fung, who also currently serves as CEO of Vontobel Wealth Management in Hong Kong. “Before this time, it was mostly offshore banking and passive management due to the uncertainty around Hong Kong’s future. People had Plan B assets offshore, but when I went into private banking, active management of client assets began.”
It was in the shift towards more active management of the assets of high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) that Fung’s philosophy as a private banker began to form.
“At this time, I began thinking more about why private bankers were not in the same category as family doctors and lawyers for Hong Kong’s HNWI community. You don’t shop for a family doctor against a fee. There is a level of trust and to some extent, private bankers didn’t enjoy this status. And I wanted to be part of the group in Hong Kong that provides a trusted level of advisory.”
Fung found a like-minded model in Societe Generale, who hired him to tap the potential in Hong Kong and Asia’s growing wealthy class.
From day one, the chemistry was there for Fung. He played a major role in building assets under management from zero to HK$12.6 billion between 1997 and 2014, when the business was sold to DBS. During his 17 years at Societe Generale, Fung ascended the ranks as assets grew, finishing his tenure as chief executive of private banking for Hong Kong, North Asia and Greater China.
Driven by a desire to again build a business from the ground up and advise clients holistically, Fung assumed his role at Vontobel, a Swiss private bank with assets under management at the time of about CHF190 billion (HK$1.5 trillion).
“I was immediately attracted to the Swiss private banking model with its high focus on advisory rather than pure transactions. Clients have grown wary of product pushes and ‘smile and dial’ approaches to private banking,” he says.
“Typically, private clients, depending on risk profile, have been in cash and money markets that give 3 to 4 per cent yield. Those days are gone, so the question is: how do you navigate with clients and generate a reasonable return on their investments? The simple answer is advisory and practising what you preach as an adviser to wealthy clients.”
But that cannot be achieved on the strength of singular views, he explains. “Clients are more involved now. We have to merge our house view, my personal view and then the client’s view. These are successful people and they are knowledgeable. Private banking in Hong Kong is now all about formulating an investment strategy and tactic based on partnership and a passion to take the journey as a team.”
Nurturing team dynamics is key for Fung. Seven trusted members of his team at Societe Generale joined him at Vontobel to build out the business, demonstrating the currency he places on loyalty. Transparency, he says, is also essential, to the extent that he sits with the entire team.
Fung’s passion for commitment extends beyond the Vontobel offices. He is a proud voting member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, carrying on a legacy started by his grandfather.
“For me, horse racing is all about the passion. My grandfather, who was also a voting member, introduced me to the sport at a young age and the fire burns stronger than ever,” Fung says.
Like his storied career, Fung has put this area of passion into practice. In partnership with several friends, he has owned numerous horses that have since 1992 graced the turf at Happy Valley and Sha Tin, where – if he is not walking his dog or hiking – you will likely find him on a Sunday afternoon.
“For me personally, it’s important to be humble and authentic in every interaction and situation, and stay balanced. But you can’t achieve balance by sitting still, whether that is interacting with clients, owning race horses or enjoying a glass of wine.”
Alex Fung lays out his banker basics.
Give your all “High-net-worth clients demand an unprecedented level of commitment. If you don’t bring this to the table, the client will know.”
Think globally “It’s not enough to provide local clients with a narrow picture. They want a truly international view.”
Build trust “Uphold the highest integrity in all interactions, work hard and lead by example. Be humble and authentic.”
Lead by example “Build a culture based on the principles of loyalty, fairness and openness, and success will follow.”
Avoid conflict “Don’t put holes in your own boat. If you play politics, you increase the chances of going down with the boat.”
(Photo: Laurence Leung)
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Practising what you preach .