Trade in foreign exchange (FX) is on the rise, turning the wheels of international finance and keeping global commerce on the move. It is essential to the business of banks and multinationals, but also of investment houses, pension funds, insurance companies, securities firms, and other non-bank financial players.
“That is what makes my role so interesting,” says Margaret Law, Asia-Pacific head of client management for CLS Group. “I have the unique opportunity to engage with institutions across the region. My interactions are on the sell-side and the buy-side, as well as with consultants, custodians, industry bodies, regulators and central banks.”
The main purpose of those contacts, she explains, is to identify solutions which address the issue of settlement risk – something that looms large in the FX market - and to increase general awareness of ways to mitigate that risk and deal with other post-trade challenges.
Doing that in the era of Covid-19 is not always straightforward. But Law and her team, which she leads in “start-up mode” despite being part of a well-established organisation, have adapted as necessary by expanding online engagement with clients.
As a result, they have been able to support the growth in Asia of the group’s own PvP (Payment vs Payment) FX settlement service, which now handles almost US$6 trillion of payment instructions per day across 18 currencies, and help customers find new operational efficiencies and liquidity benefits.
“In this role, it is important to go deeper and form a more personal connection,” says Law, who describes herself as a “people person” and has always preferred client-facing assignments. “This goes a long way towards establishing trust in a business relationship. With my team, I believe in being transparent about our collective objectives, so we can achieve a common goal. And, in managing a business, I think the ability to make timely decisions, which balance the firm’s needs with those of clients, is critical.”
Law was born in Hong Kong, but grew up in Vancouver, where she subsequently graduated from the University of British Columbia. While still studying there, she took a part-time job at a local HSBC retail branch, and that led to a place on the bank’s management trainee scheme and, as things turned out, a career of 20-plus years in the financial services sector.
Her return to Hong Kong in the late 1990s came about through an attractive offer to work in custodial services for Citibank, despite no previous experience in that area.
“This was a unique opportunity and I jumped at the chance,” she says. “In some ways, it was a tough decision because there had been a stock market crash and an exodus of people leaving Hong Kong. However, at that stage of my life, I was full of optimism and excitement, I was driven to succeed and felt I had nothing to lose.”
The initial task with Citi was to manage custody relationships in Australia and New Zealand, so within two months Law was off there to meet and deal with institutional clients. That know-how later took her back to HSBC before a four-year stint in brokerage services for Merrill Lynch.
“After having the second of my three children, I stepped down from that role and debated the idea of becoming a stay-at-home mother,” Law says. “But then Northern Trust approached me to manage their Hong Kong custody business, and I accepted.”
Throughout, what consistently appealed to her was the diversity of clients and learning about the different sectors and countries in which they specialise – and that remains the case at CLS.
“When I first joined this company, I recognised early on I could gain a lot of insight and knowledge from the people around me,” Law says. “I am not afraid to admit when I don’t know something, and I put my energy into building up the knowledge I need. It is crucial to keep learning in order to succeed.”