The greatest challenge for PAM’s Amy Cho is meeting both her work and family obligations
With more than 20 years of asset management and banking experience, Amy Cho, managing director and regional head of business development for Asia-Pacific ex-Japan at Pictet Asset Management (PAM), is just as enthusiastic about the industry as she was when she started.
“I still enjoy the dynamic and spontaneous nature of this business,” she says, speaking at PAM’s new 18,000 sq ft, two-floor office in Chater House in Central.
Founded in Geneva in 1805, Pictet is one of Switzerland’s largest private banks, with PAM the asset-management arm of the group. As of July 2013, PAM globally managed assets worth US$140 billion, while the Pictet Group – which includes PAM, private banking and custody – managed assets worth US$400 billion.
Cho did not set out to work in the industry, however. She studied engineering at the University of Hong Kong, but soon discovered she was more of a “people” person. “I knew nothing about the banking or commercial worlds, so in my final year, I decided to do some management and executive trainee programmes,” she says. “Luckily, a leading American financial institution group [Citibank] employed me as a management associate. That’s how I started [in the financial sector] as a trainee – a blank sheet of paper.”
For the next 11 years, Cho honed her skills in the corporate banking sector through her dealings with fund managers while working her way up the career ladder. She joined HSBC Asset Management in 2000, which is when her career in fund management took off. “Financial services are a good starting point [to a career in asset management] as it’s primarily a people business,” Cho says. “Even though we market financial services to our clients, we have to understand our clients and give them solutions.”
While working at HSBC Asset Management, Cho became pregnant and quit in 2003 to become a full-time mother. However she was back at work a month after giving birth, joining First State Investments as director of sales and marketing.
“Possibly because of Sars, or because it was too early for my ‘retirement’, or because my son was really good and easy to take care of as a baby, I re-engaged myself at work,” she says. She later left First State Investments to join PAM in 2006.
Cho says her biggest challenge over the years has been finding the right balance between family and work. “Financial services are no longer local, but rather regional or global,” she says. “It can be a challenge to manage the travel and meeting schedules while at the same time meeting family obligations. I’m thankful as I have a very understanding family. Luckily, my husband does not need to travel a lot for his work, so whenever I’m travelling, he can stay behind and look after our son.”
Cho believes that in some Asian countries, being a woman in the financial services industry can be a challenge when it comes to the area of marketing. “A male would be a better fit for marketing than a woman in, say, South Korea,” she says. “But the market has really changed a lot and evolved. Sometimes women can be a better fit because we are more observant, and pay attention to details, which clients really appreciate.”
While Cho agrees that in the West there is a lack of female representation at the very top levels of the finance industry, she says things are different in the mainland. “In financial institutions like banks or fund companies in the mainland, there are many women holding CEO and senior executive positions,” she says.
“Generally, I don’t see a difference between the ability of men and women, because these days women are very well educated and have the chance to gain know-how and opportunities in the commercial world,” she says. “[If there is a difference, it’s] probably because of family obligations. Maybe it’s better for working women in Asia because they usually have domestic helpers. In the Western world, this is not as easy. At the same time, we see a lot of very successful women who also manage to lead good family lives – maybe this is a minority and not a majority.”
When Cho joined PAM, she was the only member of the newly established Asia ex-Japan business development team. Today, she leads a team of 17 sales and marketing processionals.
“Pictet in Asia is in a constant growth mode,” Cho says. “We have more than 100 people in Japan, 11 in Hong Kong and six in Taiwan, plus around 20 people on the investment management side split between Singapore and Hong Kong.”
She says Pictet believes in hiring locally across the board. “The Taiwan team is locally hired and in Japan, about 99 per cent of the staff there are local. Our Hong Kong staff are also local hires,” she says.
“Hiring locally is best for understanding the culture and soft skills and how to integrate the team with the global business platform,” she adds.
When it comes to management, Cho believes in teamwork and trust. “I trust my team and always maintain very open communication with them,” she says. “They need transparency so that they can feel engaged, and empowerment comes along because of entrustment. If people feel empowered, they become passionate and far more proactive in pursuing initiatives.
“I always feel that top-down and bottom-up should be a mix. It’s not just one-way or one-sided. The Pictet culture is very much about family and teamwork – so everybody has a right to voice [their opinions] and share their ideas.”
The new Pictet office in Chater House is large enough for future expansion, and will soon be shared not only by the PAM team, but also by Pictet private banking staff. Although they are under different licensing, Cho says this emphasises that “we are a family, a team, so we sit together”.
On the new investment management side, Pictet has added four new hires during the past year, with the emphasis on strengthening Greater China equities capabilities. More new hires are on the cards, with the aim of further developing the asset management operations in Hong Kong.
“Pictet is a family name and has a partnership structure, so teamwork is very important for us,” Cho says. “When we hire people, we look at their [technical] skills for sure, but we also look at their soft skills and their personality. We look for people with passion and commitment to growing and developing a business.
“For the past seven-and-a-half years I’ve been enjoying the professionalism, integrity and commitment of the firm, especially given Pictet’s partnership structure. With this deep-rooted culture, when we hire candidates, we try to maintain openness. It’s not an interview – it’s an open discussion to see if the company and the team fit them.”