Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Banks pump up talent pipeline

A natural discretion precludes private banks from making big statements about their plans for expansion or pushing into new markets, but it is no secret their eyes are now firmly fixed on the potential in Asia and on serving the investment needs of the region's high-net-worth elite.

That obviously depends on having sufficient top-class staff to extend the existing customer base and provide the support and product knowledge all clients will rightly expect.

In scaling up, rather than taking on occasional recruits or replacement hires, the banks are adjusting their requirements. The traditional call for "experienced" candidates with five or more years in the sector is being modified. Increasingly, there is a shift in focus to developing younger talent in-house, bringing graduates up through the ranks, and not simply briefing a headhunter whenever a mid-to-senior-level position becomes vacant.

"Given the limited supply of talent in the markets in which we operate, it is a top business priority to create a pipeline for future client advisers and product specialists in order to support growth," says Allen Lo, country head and chief executive officer of wealth management for UBS in Hong Kong. "Asia-Pacific remains the leading region globally in terms of wealth creation and I would expect the upward trend to continue. So, developing our people is critical to providing a premier service for clients."

Specifically, the bank has a customised training programme for wealth management associates. It is built around 12 months of classroom courses and job rotations which give an overview of operations and a solid foundation of practical skills. Short-term assignments and on-the-job coaching allow graduates to pick the brains of senior colleagues and, importantly, to see what works and why in the "real world" of decision-making and client contacts.

"We offer a great platform," Lo says. "If client advisers are to be successful in today's competitive market, it is essential that they are competent in their specialist areas, but also adept at facilitating cross-functional collaboration."

A key factor during the training programme and beyond is to cultivate inter-personal skills and put oneself in the client's shoes. In the wake of the financial crisis, investors are more concerned than ever about product performance and general transparency. They want assurances about compliance, use of technology, and the potential downside of financial instruments - and wealth managers must be in a position to answer questions with authority.

"Advisers will be held to ever-higher levels of technical and market competence," Lo says. "That requires a significant investment on our part in education and training."

Without disclosing numbers, Lo notes that recruitment this year will be "in line with the needs of our business". He agrees, though, that attracting and retaining high-calibre talent will remain near the top of the agenda.

"Our strategy is to build a team which provides holistic, research-based advice and can sustain client relationships in turbulent times," Lo says. "A fast-changing environment requires us to act even faster."

Eduardo Leemann, the Swiss-based chief executive of Falcon Private Bank, has also given the green light for further hiring of relationship managers in Hong Kong this year. The initial plan is to create five new positions, similar to the total for 2011.

Practical constraints, dictated by the bank's relative size, still make it difficult to run a full-scale programme for graduate trainees. That may be something for the future. In the meantime, preferred candidates in the next round of recruitment are those who know their way around the business.

"We believe that for relationship manager positions in private banks, [it helps] to have an established network in place," Leemann says. "That is one reason we are focusing on experienced hires rather than young recruits."

But there will be continuous emphasis on teaching new skills. Often these are related to understanding advances in IT and making maximum use of technology to access information and communicate with clients.