Fund industry CEOs share professional frustrations, satisfactions

Fund industry CEOs share professional frustrations, satisfactions 

By Ernest Chan  November 6, 2019

CEOs list the uncertain and volatile nature of the asset management industry, liaising across multiple inconvenient time zones, and the often intangible feeling of investment success as major frustrations. Others find reward in promoting wider access to the industry among lower earners via digital platforms.

Gerard Lee, Singapore-based CEO of Lion Global Investors, has been at the top of the city-state’s asset management scene for decades, holding executive positions within GIC, Temasek and Fullerton Fund Management throughout the years. He began his current role in November 2010.

But even with a stellar career in the asset management industry, Lee admits that investing as a profession has not always been a wholly enjoyable experience.

A fickle, stressful industry

The asset management industry is a fickle one, Lee says, especially for those in his generation who were trained in stock-picking and active management, as the inconsistency of investment results can make for a very dissatisfying career.

“To me that is very frustrating,” he says. “Unfortunately, we ended up in an industry where it’s almost like a dog chasing its tail; you’re so near to catching it, but you never catch it.”

Looking at his peers who chose careers in engineering or real estate, for example, these professionals can point to a hotel or a shopping mall in Singapore as a very tangible expression of success, whereas in fund management it is not as easy to demonstrate successes or show where value has been added to society.

If you ask a teacher what the purpose of their career is, they might say they are there to groom the next generation of leaders, he says, or a doctor would say their purpose is to heal the sick.

“You ask a finance guy or fund manager what’s the purpose in your career, [and they say it’s] to beat the index,” says Lee. “That’s a lousy answer.”

Kit Wong, Singapore-based CEO of Lu International, says the pressure of working in a volatile, uncertain industry can be both frustrating and challenging.

This is a “super stressful” job, says Wong, who in September last year helped to launch Lu Global in Singapore, a financial technology firm associated with Ping An Insurance that sells third-party funds to the city-state’s accredited investors.

Wong says he has to cope with tight development cycles and the increasing need to be a master of all trades, be it in technology, investment products, client servicing, marketing or business development.

The digital funds sales space is also moving quite fast, so keeping up to date with the newest developments is a significant challenge as well.

“How do I know tomorrow something won’t come out that wipes you out? So, you always need to be a little bit insecure,” says Wong.

For a start-up robo-advisor like AutoWealth, however, the main source of uncertainty and anxiety for the company’s Singapore-based CEO, Ow Tai Zhi, is in finding sufficient resources to grow the business.

Robo-advisors in Asia have not been profitable, he says, and many of them burn huge amounts of money in order to fund their growth, with no sign of profitability in sight.

This makes the funding market a bit warier about where the robo-advisory industry is heading, and it takes a lot more effort to convince people to invest in companies like AutoWealth, Ow says.

For other CEOs of global asset management companies, the challenges of keeping in regular contact with colleagues and board members spread across the world can be a source of frustration.

“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of long hours, especially for a global company like ours with a headquarters in Paris,” says Christian Bucaro, Singapore CEO for BNP Paribas Asset Management.

The regular calls with management are done in the evening Singapore time, often at around 9 p.m., so that colleagues from the Americas, Europe and Asia can jump on the same call, but that cuts into free time or family time after work, he says.

For Steven Billiet, J.P. Morgan Asset Management’s Singapore CEO and Southeast Asia business head, the sheer pace of the industry can be a challenge all on its own.

“It is a fast-changing environment, financial markets change, investor appetite changes, regulations change, the competitive landscape changes: you need to be on top of these changes all the time,” says Billiet.

“If you stand still or become complacent you will miss out on opportunities and become less relevant to your clients,” he adds.

Where to find job satisfaction

Carmen Wee, CEO of the Investment Management Association of Singapore, took on the position of leading the industry association at the start of 2018, and she has found a different kind of job satisfaction compared with her previous senior roles at fund companies such as Natixis Global Asset Management and DBS Asset Management.

After accumulating knowledge about all the issues that are ailing fund houses and about regulatory constraints, this job gives Wee the opportunity to marry her experience which at this point in her career is very satisfying, she says.

“My role now gives me the opportunity to bring my experience to bear in driving change and leading new industry initiatives – being able to do this at this point of my career is especially rewarding,” says Wee.

BNPP AM’s Bucaro says he has found the most contentment in coaching salespeople across different countries; mentoring them and seeing them grow in their roles. Having an idea that one year later turns into a big project and helps the business flourish is also very rewarding, he adds.

Other money managers find the biggest source of satisfaction from their roles in knowing that they are providing services that can meet the investment needs of ordinary people.

Chuin Ting Weber is the Singapore-based CEO of MoneyOwl, an online platform that offers customers basic low-fee portfolios with varying levels of equities exposure, as well as access to human advisors.

“The most rewarding thing is we’re trying to do something that benefits the ordinary person and to return retail fund management to the roots of serving people’s financial plans,” Weber says.

AutoWealth’s Ow began running a more traditional face-to-face wealth manager called Skytowers Capital after stints at GIC and other local wealth and asset management firms, before he converted the business into a robo-advisor platform in 2015 to better serve retail investors in Singapore.

Friends and peers would ask when he would stop helping both rich people and the Singapore government get even richer, Ow says, and that spurred him to explore opportunities within the digital funds space to meet the needs of ordinary investors.

Lion Global’s Lee similarly says he has found a new inspiration and source of fulfillment in spearheading the launch of the company’s new digital funds platform, which he says helped him “articulate his purpose in finance”.

Lion Global established its online platform, LGI Direct, in 2017, which allows retail investors to access its funds through online partners such as iFAST Financial, DollarDEX and FSMOne.

“I’ve been in this industry for 35 years – this is probably the first time I’m feeling so satisfied,” he says.