Why Hong Kong bankers don't want to work for Hong Kong banks

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Corporate bankers in Hong Kong still prefer to work for large international banks over those headquartered in their city or in mainland China.

Hong Kong’s ‘big five’ commercial and corporate banks – Bank of China, Bank of East Asia, Heng Seng Bank, HSBC and Standard Chartered – are all deemed so systemically important to the city's financial system that they hold more capital in reserve than any others.

But the five firms are not equally attractive in the minds of job seekers. Heng Seng may be majority owned by HSBC, but it, BEA and BOC are seen as second-tier players among corporate bankers looking for jobs in Hong Kong, say recruiters.

“Most bankers still favour foreign banks like Stan Chart and HSBC because of their wider product offerings and their ability to win global corporate business,” says a senior corporate banking headhunter in Hong Kong. “And candidates from Western banks are typically able to manage larger teams and cope better in jobs with regional responsibilities.”

“Hongkongers tend to be very brand conscious,” adds Kevin Allen, a senior consultant at recruiters Links International in Hong Kong. “Foreign corporate banks give your resume more bite and credibility.”

“Graduates aspire to a brand name and are attracted by the hype that comes with a foreign bank visiting campus,” says a junior corporate banker who’s worked for both a local and a global bank, and who asked not to be named.

There are also fundamental differences between domestic and foreign firms when it comes to the type of work bankers perform, she adds. “At a local bank, the tasks are slightly more basic as you’re more likely to be looking after small and medium-sized corporates rather than multi-nationals. That might mean helping a company avoid bankruptcy, by counting inventory and making sure it’s not overbuying.”

Local corporate banks are more likely to make their juniors write their own credit papers, she adds. “At a European or US bank you need to be more aware of macro-economic or wider industry issues affecting your clients. You never know what they might ask.”

The local corporate banks are regarded as “hierarchical and bureaucratic rather than meritocratic and dynamic”, says Henry Chamberlain, a Hong Kong careers consultant and former head of selection at Standard Chartered. “Top performers get frustrated by this.”

“Hang Seng would be the best of the three big local players. Some bankers prefer joining it because of its low staff turnover, less aggressive business model, and good work-life balance,” says the anonymous headhunter. “Bank of China generally has large teams, but they have little interaction with each other. BEA hasn’t had much success in winning business over its competitors.”

In contrast to Singapore – whose three domestic banks are closing the hiring gap on their global rivals – few corporate bankers are shifting from foreign to local firms in Hong Kong.

“The differences in culture and management styles prevent a free flow of talent. Joining a local bank is usually a step down,” says Chamberlain.

Moving in the other direction – from a Bank of East Asia to a Stan Chart, for example – is becoming more common.

Global corporate banks want to hire more Mandarin-speaking relationship managers in Hong Kong to build their client base across Greater China, says Eunice Ng, director of search firm Avanza Consulting in Hong Kong.

Convincing candidates to move is usually straight forward, says Allen from Links. “Because local banks almost always pay lower base salaries, their staff are cheaper to hire and are less likely to pull out of the recruitment process. The locals can be a relatively easy hunting ground to find good underpaid talent.”

“Working for an Asian bank after I graduated gave me a great grounding in corporate banking because I had to really get my hands dirty in all aspects of client relationships,” says the corporate banker we spoke with. “It can work out well if you start local and then move international.”

Image credit: Laoshi, Getty

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