"I'm a UBS MD and I went back to school after 17 years in Asian banking. This is why"

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You’ve been working in Asian private banking for 17 years, have made MD, have a healthy book of clients, and have been happily ensconced in your current firm since 2007.

Why then would you even consider putting yourself through a gruelling two-year Master’s degree? Why would you bother with a qualification typically taken by late-20 something bankers looking to climb the ladder?

Wee Choon Hock, a desk head at UBS’s private bank in Singapore whose career matches the resume above, says Asian wealth management in changing so rapidly that even experienced hands like him will benefit from a higher degree.

At a ceremony held at UBS in Singapore this week, Wee graduated alongside 15 others from the bank's Master in Wealth Management Programme, run in collaboration with the universities of Rochester and Bern.

He says the industry today is “almost unrecognisable” compared to when he began his career. And he undertook the part-time degree, which is aimed at senior client-facing and managerial UBS employees, in order to better prepare himself for the “big changes” set to shake up the sector in years to come.

“Taking time off for a few weeks to study allowed me and my classmates to challenge each other’s viewpoints, and reflect and reinforce many of the ideas and principles of wealth management,” says Wee.

But did the degree actually help him on the job? Wee says it gave him new expertise in leadership strategy as well as in managing client wealth, relationships and risk.

“And the module on behavioural finance and the various types of behavioural biases that investors frequently commit in making decisions was really interesting,” he adds. “I was able to explain to my colleagues and clients some of these biases and apply this new knowledge to the normal course of my job.”

Why you should up-skill in Asian private banking

With the wealth management sector expanding in Asia and talent in short supply, surely private bankers can afford to focus on bringing in new wealth and schmoozing current clients?

Wee disagrees. The very growth of the industry means bankers need to keep expanding their skill sets via further education – Master’s degrees included – and on-the-job training.

“In the last few years, for example, newer disruptive technology developments and stricter cross-border and compliance regulations are changing the rules of the game on the client-servicing model,” explains Wee.

In Asia the “rapid transition of wealth” between generations is also causing new challenges for private bankers.

“Being tech savvy, well educated in finance and well travelled, the next generation of clients in Asia is more demanding and expects information to be available 24/7,” says Wee.

“And in addition to traditional financial instruments, they’re looking at unique investment opportunities such as access to hedge funds, private equity, and corporate deal flows,” he adds.

Asian private bankers must also ensure they have the skills to deal with the growing shift towards managing client assets on an advisory-fee basis, a trend we reported on in June.

“Clients are seeking professional advice to help them manage their investment portfolios and are prepared to pay a fee for this,” says Wee. “This is a big departure from the commission-based era in Asia, where clients pay as they trade. The brokerage business will be over sooner than most people think with the technological advances that are threatening the financial services industry.”

He adds: “Understanding clients’ needs, mastering the investment platform and market environment, and coming up with appropriate financial solution will be the future for wealth management. It may sound simple, but there’s a lot of complexity behind this and to master it won’t be easy given the challenges we’re facing.”

Study stress

If all this has convinced you to add a Masters to your private banking resume, Wee has a final word of warning: the study itself can be tough, even if you’ve been in the industry for years.

He says balancing his UBS job with both study and family responsibilities was “challenging” and “added an extra layer of stress”.

“I had to burn many weekends completing exams and writing my thesis. But in the long run, as leaders, we’re expected to multi task and still deliver results even if we’re operating in a stressful environment.”

Image credit: Savushkin, Getty

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