JP Morgan’s HK head Kam-shing Kwang explains how a love of mathematics kick-started a successful career in portfolio management
These days, top bankers have access to every kind of executive training programme, as well as the insight of mentors, coaches, business gurus and experts in everything from global strategy to cloud computing. But when it comes to running a 300-strong team in a high-intensity sector, Kam-shing Kwang has also taken due note of lessons on the home front.
“I realise how different my two daughters are, and that has definitely affected my own style of management,” says Kwang, whose role as JP Morgan’s senior country officer for Hong Kong, and market manager for Hong Kong, China and sponsors, the Philippines and Thailand for JP Morgan Private Bank, involves governance, internal controls, community engagement, and expanding the bank’s market presence and client base.
“With the same parents, school and home environment, they have become very different individuals with their own strengths and personalities. As a manager, it is also important to understand individual differences and allow people to flourish.
“Some are very self-motivated. They need room and space, so you try to use minimum intervention. But you also have to make sure you can influence people when you are not with them day to day and find the balance between being strategic and dealing with details.”
Kwang grew up in Hong Kong and won a scholarship to attend secondary school in Singapore. She says this brought out the pragmatic side of her personality and her determination to overcome challenges. “As a 13-year-old, I was very homesick, but when I set a goal, I do it. I needed to be independent and, even in my teens, wanted to see a bit more of the world,” she says, noting that having grandparents in Singapore provided crucial backup. “Initially, I did triple science in school, intending to be an engineer or doctor, but I then took up economics and really fell in love with the subject.” In due course, that led to a three-year professional degree in accounting at the National University of Singapore, followed by a first job as an auditor with Arthur Andersen that paid well, had a go-ahead culture, and offered first-rate training near Chicago.
Everything was going well, but an assignment to audit a client involved in futures trading caused Kwang to stop and think. Her eyes were opened to the world of portfolio management and related investments – and the range of job possibilities that existed.
“I was very interested in the instruments they were using, the nitty-gritty things, which tied in with my love for mathematics and modelling,” she says. “From that point, I was quite deliberate about finding a job in investment because I wanted to apply my technical skills and knowledge to something that was [forward-looking], not in the past.”
Making good on that resolve, she was hired as a portfolio manager at United Overseas Bank. Success there brought an offer to join HSBC Asset Management in 1993 as an associate director in Hong Kong, before promotion to head of the bank’s private client department signalled another stint in Singapore.
“I was very fortunate,” Kwang says. “I loved my job and everything was going right for me. There were a lot of opportunities in the Asia equity market and, looking back, I was probably a bit full of myself.”
A reality check – for everyone – was on the way in the shape of the 1998 Asian financial crisis. By then, though, Kwang was not just contending like others with the fallout and attendant uncertainties of the market crash, but also still settling into her new role with JP Morgan’s Hong Kong-based portfolio management team for international business.
At first reluctant to move, she had finally agreed to the switch after a six-month courtship involving informal meetings and an invitation to a high-powered company off-site in Geneva, which ultimately clinched the deal.
“I thought why not go, it’s a free trip,” Kwang says. “But I was blown away by the people I met and was really sold. They were all very passionate about what they did.”
Her responsibilities multiplied during six years as head of investment management in Hong Kong. This continued when taking charge of South Asia investments and, subsequently, as head of JP Morgan Private Bank in Singapore. But, through all the changes, the combination of challenges that go with meeting internal targets, advising clients, managing a fast-paced organisation and reading the different markets has lost none of its appeal.
“For example, it still excites me to interact with our analysts,” Kwang says. “They are open, opinionated and all want to make a difference.” We have regional experts, asset class specialists and investment strategists who argue things out and debate the risks in a very objective manner. A global network helps us make ‘rational’ decisions, not just act on impulse or emotions. And, after doing the necessary risk management, you back your judgement and stay the course.”
With her younger daughter off to study in the US, Kwang is currently experiencing a touch of the “empty nest” syndrome. “Career and family were always the primary things, but with the girls away, there is now more time for travel, and I might take a part-time course in Buddhism as philosophy,” she says.
“Also, [many of the bank’s] clients are very passionate about philanthropy. Through that process, we can learn a lot about what is possible in healthcare, curing disease in poorer places, and providing education for the underprivileged. All these are very fascinating areas.”
Kam-shing Kwang’s five boosters for banking success
Stay innovative “Be curious, open-minded and hard-working, and continue to have those qualities when you have the chance to take on new roles and challenges. You also need the ability to embrace change as markets are changing every minute.”
Curate key characters “The generation now graduating are all well educated and have been exposed to international influences. They have the basic ingredients to do well in banking but, ultimately, attitude will determine if they really have what it takes to go on to successful careers in the sector.”
Prioritise people “In my team, we have people from very diverse backgrounds. Some have studied history, philosophy or journalism, but they must have the personality and range of interests to connect with clients.”
Don’t simplify “Things are now so interlinked that, when analysing a company, you must look at the global context and be able to navigate the complexity.”
Connect with career-starters “As an organisation, we realise that relating well to the younger generation is the key to success in the years ahead.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Learning from home.