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Digitalisation in banking and finance

Hong Kong’s status as an international financial hub, further boosted by its role in the Greater Bay Area initiative, looks sure to create a steady flow of good job openings within the sector.

However, with the push to digitalise operations and enhance online platforms, the strongest demand is for tech specialists, individuals with the skills and experience to manage change and steer projects towards successful implementation.

“In banking and finance, we’ve seen an increase in tech hiring across big data, investment management and AI,” says Abimanu Jeyakumar, the head of recruitment firm Selby Jennings Hong Kong. “In private banking, as well as retail and corporate banking and wealth management, technology is of huge interest. Demand is high, but the talent pool is shallow, so you can see people with five to six years’ experience at the level of a managing director.”

The firm’s main focus is to help employers fill mid- to senior-level positions. These days, that means using a global database used to identify suitable candidates. But when looking for good options in niche areas where talent is notably sparse, it is essential to be proactive and throw the net ever wider.

“Previously, you could usually find people with relevant experience at other banks, or maybe we would talk to someone working in a ‘quant’ hedge fund,” says Jeyakumar, who started with Selby Jennings in London as a research associate for the global private banking team.

“But now we are as likely to consider candidates who have gone into, say, Google or Facebook and are looking to return to banking or thinking about a change in direction. Our job is to find enough transferable skills. It may then take some training and development from the client to bring them fully up to speed.”

In terms of roles, he sees increasing need for algorithm traders, quant specialists for portfolio management, and data scientists able to give institutions an edge in making investment decisions. At the same time, thought, there is steady demand for professionals in risk management, legal and compliance work. And sales and trading teams are always keen to meet candidates with the potential to open the door to new business with mainland Chinese clients.

“Banks are going in the direction of digitalisation; they are prioritising technology and that will continue because they want to increase efficiency,” Jeyakumar says. “But they also spend time on things that will make them more money. Therefore, a lot of the private banking placements we make are still for relationship managers, the people who can win business, build relationships, and make a deal.”

The actual recruitment process, he notes, can take anything from two weeks up to a year. Especially for the more senior roles, which may involve relocation to Hong Kong, factors like children’s schooling can come into the equation. And making initial contacts or assessments is not always as easy as it might seem.

“A lot of bankers don’t have a social media presence, so we need to access them through networking,” says Jeyakumar, who has been based in Hong Kong since 2014 and currently leads a 30-strong team of consultants. “As a recruiter, the next thing is to find out if a candidate can fundamentally ‘do’ the job in question. We look for a genuine, tangible track record, for instance the performance of their fund, and I will speak to everyone and their dog about the industry and the market.”

In each case, a series of pointers and sector KPIs helps in assessing the individual calibre. For a private banking appointment, those could include the current employer’s AUM (assets under management) and funds managed, along with the usual things like a candidate’s educational background, tech languages, and international experience.

“In addition, we try to partner with banks globally and will discuss hiring trends and strategies,” Jeyakumar says. “As part of that, we talk with trading desk managers and CIOs about their plans and performance for the year, as well as any attrition worries, or how to replace people who may exit at bonus period. We help to remedy this before it affects their year.”

As a result of such contacts, he believes that private banking and wealth management in Hong Kong can look forward to continued growth. There is plenty of market share to go for and, in general, the landscape appears positive.

For instance, last year Hong Kong was the leading destination for IPOs (initial public offerings), fuelled by the tech sector across Asia. And areas like renewable energy and sustainable industry are attracting interest from investors keen to put their money into things that make the world a better place.

“Banks will always be looking for new areas to explore to keep their shareholders happy,” Jeyakumar says. “And, linked to that, they will always want to attract the smartest people around the world, whether that is for digitalisation or making an investment banking deal.”

At present, he adds, there is relative shortage of senior private bankers in Hong Kong and of people with high-level experience in private equity and venture capital. Employers are also on the lookout for professionals in global market sales and trading.

“There is less money to be made by average performers than in the past, but a huge amount to be made by top performers,” Jeyakumar says. “I fundamentally believe there are good careers in these areas, and there is still a big pool of people who want to go into the sector because they see the career trajectory and all the bells and whistles on offer.”

“I also foresee that China will focus on the Greater Bay Area as a tech hub and Hong Kong will remain of huge interest to financial services professionals. Making Hong Kong more connected can only be good for banking and finance.”